Political religion, authoritarian leadership & democratic legitimacy

Because emotions rather than reason govern beliefs of such a party, one notices the strange logical inexplicability


Sahibzada Riaz Noor May 14, 2022

Political religion as distinct from traditional religion doesn’t claim divine sanction but uses all the symbols, rituals and myths that are typical of traditional belief systems.

The purpose or goals of a political religion is not to usher a sacred and just temporal or other worldly order, but acquisition and control of political power to implement a certain ideology and policy agenda by an authoritarian leader by allusion and appeal to sacred symbols and rituals typical of traditional religion.

After attaining political capture the goal is exercise of and continuation in state power by a messianic leader, by all means, for a higher cause or ideal, notwithstanding electoral mandate of parties, which can therefore be overridden, and irrespective of the requirements of the Constitution or individual freedoms.

The aim is retention of consent and support which in modern day is enabled by intelligent and incessant use of social media and TV, in order to create allegiance verging on religious belief and loyalty.

Notwithstanding the true, inner nature of this authoritarian, or what in theoretical discourse is often referred to as a rightist neo-fascist leadership paradigm and party structure, the need for legitimacy demands apparent outward, conformity to and belief in the forms and vocabulary typical of democracy and rule of law.

But such beliefs are only superficial in nature as their true acceptance and implementation would logically entail allowing of plurality and dissent that is anathema to true political religion.

Central to the concept of a political religion is the creation of a collective belief in a higher cause, in a society harking back to a supposed golden era of chaste and purer morals, where no one went hungry, where laws were applied equally to all and where all the needs of people would be fairly fulfilled.

In such a political construct the society takes precedence over the individual. The individual is important only in so far as she or he contributes to the cause of the collective and social interests and collective good. Iqbal spoke of ‘fard qaim rabte millat se hey thanha kuchh nahin, mauj hey darya mein aur beroone darya kuchh nahin’.

There is scant place in and reference in such an ideology to economic classes and social inequality, of domination of the rich over the poor, of the need to reduce income gaps, of the requirement of institutional legal and constitutional safeguards to individual freedoms and rights from overpowering state power.

There is little or no appeal to low wages, unemployment and lack of education and health facilities and the crushing impact of high prices on the poor.

A constant allusion is made to a purer bygone era, an attempt at revival of a glorified past reflecting the states of Moses, Christ or of Medina.

Hofstadter had said that any passionate and crusade-like belief to rid society of certain evils like corruption can be as great a threat to pluralistic democracy as outright dictatorship.

In this belief system and ideology there is doubt, bordering on the disbelief, in the core democratic norm that in more rather than less democracy, repeated elections, peaceful transfers of power, a strong judiciary and a robust, responsible free press, is the true answer to helping reducing, through continuous accountability, the incidence of corruption that exists in degrees in nearly all countries, capitalist, socialist or Islamic. This was the course adopted by nearly all western democracies that went through centuries of rampant corruption in their societies in the past.

Some of the main ideas endemic to such a political ideology and its use of political religion are to allude to economic and moral decay of society and country; that a higher, truer cause is more important or valuable than the right of vote available to the common man; that somehow the semi-rich, urban educated, but politically disempowered have a prior right to political power than the uneducated, unparh, uncouth, rural rich bumpkin to decide who should rule irrespective of constitutionalism or laws; that the corrupt feudal and business elite monopolise power by colluding with other organs of state like the judiciary, parliament, whereas the messianic leader alone is entitled to lead society and country towards the greater and higher cause and goals of a purer and ideal society which is wealthy, based upon justice and independent of foreign control or manipulation.

In order to deflect minds of the people from their true life problems an impression of the existence of a constant enemy or threat or sense of fear of an existentialist enemy, internal or external, is created against whom a constant war-like environment of opinions is engendered with a stated purpose to safeguard national honour and sovereignty. Such social mental states are rich soil for growth of various conspiracy theories. Such theories of foreign plots are readily accepted and become strongly entrenched in case they coincide with the defeat through constitutional means of an inept government that has also lost support of its previous patrons.

Since the ideal leader alone is morally entitled to support tending to religious obedience, any opposition to him is either misled or malicious and does not deserve to be heard or be allowed to be freely expressed. Any doubts about the financial integrity of the leader are held out to be worth dismissal since they just cannot be true. Dissent or criticism of the messiah cannot be anything but close to blasphemy.

Since the leader leads a moral war against corruption, he is above reproach. Any doubts about his integrity or dissent, therefore, is right and morally justified to be hounded out or suppressed, both within the party as well as the society at large. Intolerance, despotism, denial of individual rights and messianism are hallmarks of political religions appealing to mythical causes or conspiracies that have little relation to the real life problems of the majority of the masses like poverty, lack of education and health facilities.

Since the ideal leader is sacrosanct and he or she are entitled to beckon their believers to go out and preach the message of the leader, incidents such as those that took place in the Haram Shareef Medina cannot be condemned as that would amount to backstabbing one’s own believers.

Because emotions rather than reason govern the beliefs of such a movement or party, one notices the strange logical inexplicability, like the leader apparently standing higher in stature or deserving of prior blind obedience than considerations of profanity of the tomb of the prophet by supporters. It is therefore out of the question to condemn the irreverents since that would amount to disowning devout believers in one’s own true political religion.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 14th, 2022.

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