Aaron Perry


  • Home
  • |
  • All Episodes
  • |
  • Episode 157 – Soraya Afzali, Expert Political Scientist on the Dangers of Autocracy & Charismatic Leadership
Y On Earth - Podcast Cover
Stewardship & Sustainability Series
Episode 157 - Soraya Afzali, Expert Political Scientist on the Dangers of Autocracy & Charismatic Leadership

Shedding Light on Autocracy & the Abuse of Charismatic Leadership

In this important episode Soraya Afzali, an Afghan sociology and political science expert based at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, discusses the deep dangers of charismatic leadership when it is deployed by autocratic figures to mobilize fear, hatred, and anger around populist movements that ultimately seek to cement political power around dictators and their totalitarian regimes.

Humans are highly susceptible to rhetoric that impacts individual neuro-biochemistry in such a manner that when xenophobia and other “fear-factors” are mobilized and repeatedly stressed to be imminent (and often existential) threats, the cocktail effect of our physical hormones can behave much like addiction to narcotics and other stimulants. These powerful forces can be mobilized en-masse by charismatic authoritarian leaders, often leading to very tragic, violent, and horrific outcomes, as recent “necropolitics” examples in the 20th and early 21st centuries clearly demonstrate. Authoritarian leaders often appear as “saviors” initially (and astute psychologists will connect the dots between traumatic experiences, narcissism, and triggering/manipulating vulnerabilities in others who themselves have also had traumatic experiences… as most all of us have). Then, they systematically accrete power (very often within the context of otherwise reasonably well-functioning democracies), until finally they are virtually omnipotent dictators within the context of their nation-state regimes. Whether it’s the fascist rhetoric of Hitler and Mussolini a century ago, or the current populist rhetoric affecting democracies throughout the world, hatred- and fear-based charismatic political leadership is arguably the most dangerous and destabilizing force our species has encountered in modern times. Not only does this cynical form of charisma create real, existential threats to human safety and security (perhaps ironically, given that it so often points to contrived or exaggerated “existential threats” to mobilize susceptible segments of the population), it also severely undermines concerted regional, national, and global efforts to effectively mitigate other very real threats such as civil liberty erosion, human trafficking, slavery, arms and narcotics trade, oceanic pollution, climate destabilization, and ecological destruction.

If we are to most effectively respond as a human family to the myriad challenges and threats facing humanity (in a kind, loving, compassionate, inclusive, and democratic manner) then we must diminish the power of authoritarian charismatic leadership in our societies.

By shedding light on the tactics deployed by charismatic authoritarian leaders, Ms. Afzali helps us to understand the mechanisms used on vulnerable populations, such as: focusing on geographic territoriality (and real/fabricated/exaggerated “threats” thereto), appealing to superficial religious beliefs, constructing “enemies,” mobilizing racism and hatred toward specific subcultural groups, and generally appealing to the base human emotions associated with perceived separateness, danger, and fear in order to trigger “fight or flight” neuro-biochemical responses. Then, after evoking a sense of emotional danger, the totalitarian leader will often provide a “reframing” and a “plan to action” to respond to the perceived threat, almost always engendering a (false) sense of urgency and (also false) sense of agency among the vulnerable populations responding to such rhetoric, including fostering a (superficial yet) powerful sense of belonging and purpose.

Wow. This is serious, heavy, and dangerous stuff… and it is clearly important and pertinent to our current regional and global situations. Our entire human family is affected one way or another by charismatic authoritarian leaders, and the risks at present do not yet seem to be abating of their own accord.

Therefore, we are not only being called to better understand the mechanisms of populist authoritarianism, we must also learn to ascertain the (sometimes subtle) differences between that form of “leadership” and authentically beneficent (or at least humanistic) leadership that is grounded in humility, love, kindness, compassion, and respect for all people and all life.

Thank goodness we have the work of a leader like Soraya to help us untangle this massive, complicated human (all-too-human?) snarl of rhetorical, psychological, neurobiochemical, political, and emotional dimensions, and to become much better at, instead of tangling giant knots of pain and suffering, weaving more beautiful tapestries of understanding, stability, peace, joy, and harmony. Not only is the latter the better path for us to take, it is the only pragmatic path, in the final analysis, when it comes to successfully navigating the very complex systemic risks we all actually face together in these momentous times.   

About Soraya Afzali

Soraya Afzali received her bachelor’s degree in Business Management at the American University of Afghanistan and her masters in International Relations from Central European University. Soraya has several years of experience in communication and has contributed to different research projects with international organizations as a consultant. She has contributed to the World Bank Group’s Education Management Information System in Collaboration with Ministry of Higher Education- and GIZ’s Monitoring, Evaluation and Communication (MEC) in collaboration with Ministry of Economics in Afghanistan. Ms. Soraya is passionate about promoting diversity and inclusion. For her MA thesis, she focused on mechanisms of inclusion in educational systems.  

Within her volunteer work, she has volunteered for Solace for the Children, the American Councils, and co-founded Humans of Kabul in 2013 to tell stories of Afghan people. Throughout the years, Soraya has been part of different networks that focus on civil society empowerment as the likes of Open Society Foundation, Initiatives of Change- Caux Scholars Program, and Le Ciel Foundation. She is recipient of the US Embassy Scholarship and Open Society Leadership Award. 

Resources & Related Episodes


Ep. 155 – John Rogers, Le Ciel Foundation Fellow, “The Renaissance Campaign”

Ep. 140 – Dr. James Gordon, MD, Founder, Center for Mind-Body Medicine

Ep. 127 – John Perkins, “Life Economy vs. Death Economy”

Ep. 109 – Dr. Robert Cloninger, MD, “Genetics & Psychology of Stewardship, Happiness, & Hope”

Ep. 88 – General Wesley Clark, “Democracy, Climate, Technology & Leadership”

Ep. 75 – Dr. Jandel Allen-Davis, MD, “Race, Riots, and Reflection: Healing Our Communities”

Ep. 71 – Karenna Gore, Director, Center for Earth Ethics

Ep. 51 – Jonathan Granoff, President, Global Security Institute

Ep. 50 – Dr. Anita Sanchez on Women’s Voices, Indigenous Wisdom & the Sacred Hoop of Life

Ep. 22 – Sahar Alsahlani on Interfaith & Greenfaith Action

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Subscribe to the
Y on Earth Community Podcast:

Listen On Stitcher