When France went to the polls in 2017, CNN described an interview with the “far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.” In March, France24 reported on Italy’s elections as a choice between “the populist Five Star Movement, three-time former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition and the ruling center-left Democratic Party.” Hungary voted in national elections in April and The Guardian wrote about “Gergely Karacsony, the leading left-wing candidate.”
Pakistan went to the polls last week and Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf came in first. France24 reported that prior to his win there had been a “rotating leadership between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party.” The Guardian reported that the PML-N had complained about the vote. CNN noted that the “Pakistan Muslim League came in second with 64 seats and the Pakistan People’s Party won 43.”
Notice the difference. In Pakistan there is no “right” and “left” or “far right.” The closest most Western media came to apply the labels they apply throughout the West to Pakistan was France24 describing the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam as “religious.” Only Al-Jazeera labeled some of the parties in Pakistan’s elections as “far right” and others as “religious supremacists.”
The absence of political spectrum terms “right” and “left” affects every country from Morocco to Pakistan, except for Israel. In Israel elections, major media describes a political spectrum spanning far left to far right. Even though India and Pakistan share similar histories, The Independent described “far-right populism” in India, but not “far-right populism” in Pakistan. If there isn’t “far-right” populism in Pakistan, perhaps there is “far-left populism?” Nope. Neither that. It is as if the greater Middle East exists in an apolitical universe. There are left- and right-wing parties in South America, in sub-Saharan Africa, and in East Asia and Australia.
What explains the inability of major media, particularly in the West, to use terms “right, far right, left, far left” or “conservative, liberal” for the Middle East? Hamas and Fatah are not described as “right-wing religious” and “center-right nationalist,” although that’s what they might be called if they ran in Bulgaria or Denmark. There are slight exceptions to this rule. Reuters refers to “Islamist Hamas” and AP refers to Hamas as an “Islamic militant group.
” But what happened to terms such as right-wing, far right, right-wing extremist, far-right conservative?
To erase these terms (and in the process sanitizing and whitewashing most of the politics across dozens of countries), major media even created new terms for some political divides, like that in Iran. In Iran, there are “hardliners and moderates.” That’s it. There are no “right-wing” parties. No centrists. No populists. No alt-right, obviously. Mahmud Ahmadinejad is called a “brash, populist hardliner.” When Roy Moore ran for Senate in Alabama, he was called “reactionary,” a “far-right Republican” and a “controversial conservative” by the same publications that can’t use similar terms for Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad.
Of interest, Turkey tends to get some “right” and “left” descriptions because of its proximity to Europe. BBC described “fiery nationalist Meral Aksener” and “center-left CHP,” the “Islamist-rooted AKP,” the “nationalist MHP” and “pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party.” Okay, but actually the AKP is a right-wing party, the MHP is also a right-wing party and the HDP is a left-wing party. It’s not just “pro-Kurdish,” its roots are in left-wing politics. So why can’t Western media say so?
The decision to remove “right” and “left” from the political landscape of the greater Middle East is partly an Orientalist way of othering the region
. The argument is that countries from Morocco to Pakistan, primarily Muslim countries, cannot be understood on this spectrum, they are so different. Even when they share a history and political traditions, such as India and Pakistan, one country is devoid of right-left politics.
The second reason for the disappearing descriptions is because of a conscious effort to whitewash the politics of these countries. Pakistan’s politics primarily span the extreme religious right to the nationalist right. Iran’s politics also span the far-right religious conservatives to the extreme far-right religious conservatives. There simply are no left-wing parties in most of these countries. In Pakistan, almost every politician supports the death penalty for blasphemy. If a politician in the US supported the death penalty for blasphemy they would obviously be “extreme far-right religious.” If Le Pen is “far right,” then certainly so is Ahmadinejad, and the AKP and Hamas and Hezbollah and the PML-N and many other parties.
A third reason why the region lacks a political spectrum is that in the West the term “left” generally means “good” in media parlance while right, or far right will be a stand-in for “bad,” “racist,” “nationalist” or “religious conservative.” Throughout the Middle East, almost every party is either nationalist or extreme right conservative. The decision not to label them as such is a way to quietly sanitize them for the reader. There is a deeper agenda here. Hamas and Hezbollah, for instance, are regularly called “religious” but then said to provide “social services.” Then they are quietly moved into the “left-wing” column as providing the “poor” with “social justice.” Of course, the KKK also had “social services,” but it was not a leftist party. Hamas and Hezbollah share more in common with the KKK than Karl Marx. But some people want us to see them as more Marx than murderers.
It’s time to take the gloves off and label politics from Morocco to Pakistan. In a globalized world, the various parties and movements do not exist in a vacuum. Political Islamist parties are right wing. They aren’t “hardliners.” Maybe they are “populists,” but then label them what they are. Nationalists are nationalists. They aren’t just the “leading party” and the “opposition.” Are there left-wing, secular style parties in this region. Yes, there are. A few. Are there liberals? Yes, there are. Let them be liberal and define the rest of the politics as “conservative,” which is what it is. Stop the charade of calling parties in Israel and India “far right” while labeling Palestinian and Pakistani parties as just their names, without a judgment as to where they sit on the spectrum. End the charade of telling us that Bulgaria and Russia have a political spectrum but not Kazakhstan and Iraq.
Seth Frantzman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and Opinion Editor for the Jerusalem Post.