Friday, May 9, 2014


In October, 2001, Fareed Zakaria wrote a cover story for Newsweek magazine with the provocative title, “Why They Hate Us.”  It was an analysis of the Al Qaeda attacks on 9/11, and Mr. Zakaria ended the article with a call for the United States to help Islam “enter modernity in dignity and peace.”

Mr. Zakaria reports the Muslim world is beset with economic hardship and that Muslim fundamentalism is a reality.  However, while pointing out the problems, he does not offer a corrective path.  That is evidently an exercise left to the reader.

Why bring this up?  There is actually a tie-in with authoritarians.  It can be explained through a Venn diagram:

                                                   The Political-Religious Movement

The diagram shows how religious and political beliefs can be “co-opted” by people with authoritarian tendencies.  While political activities and religious beliefs are distinct and separate areas of human action, a special intensity of feeling comes when they are combined.

Political beliefs help us form a functioning society.  A particular outlook for collective action or individual accountability helps us structure the rules that govern our group behaviors.  Our political beliefs set the rules for constructive human interaction.

Religious beliefs help guide our individual behaviors.  We use religious instruction to guide our personal lives.

Because religious beliefs focus on individual behavior, they have an intensity that is not present in political beliefs.  We often find that we are less tolerant of opposing religious views than we are of opposing political views.

What authoritarians seek is the merging of the political and the religious spheres of influence.  That intersection creates an intensity of feeling that becomes the essence of any Political-Religious Movement.  The Venn diagram shown above indicates that a Political-Religious Movement is defined by this intersection.

While a Political-Religious Movement can occur anywhere, it is important to note that the United States of America has built-in defenses against this type of interaction.  Our Founders incorporated the constitutional principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, and the rule of law.  These deter the type of power that authoritarians seek.

While not impossible, it is difficult for one person or one political party to acquire authoritarian power in the American political system.  It is much easier in those parts of the world where American constitutional powers do not hold sway.  An authoritarian has a much easier go of it in third-world countries where commitments to the separation of church and state do not exist, and the separation and distribution of political power is not a defining principle.

To see a Political-Religious Movement in action, we might look to the Middle East and the country of Iran.  Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, demonstrates the central techniques used for consolidation of power.  First among them is to foster a philosophical duality.  That duality is a co-dependence on idealism and hatred.

If that concept seems foreign, note how the study of the Quran is used for the inculcation of “high ideals.”  If a follower exhibits a commitment to the Quran, that person automatically has high ideals.  If that idealism is then coupled with an object of hate, a level of fervent intensity is brought to the Political-Religious Movement.  Within the Islamic State of Iran, hatred is directed at Christians and Jews.

The pairing of idealism with hatred is characteristic and defining in any Political-Religious Movement.  Germany under Adolf Hitler had the ideal of a master race coupled with the hatred of Jews.  The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has its nationalism and idealistic devotion to Kim Jong-un merged with a hatred for Americans.

But what about the Middle East?  Americans may be confused with Islam divided between Sunni and Shia denominations that fight against one another.  It only makes sense when you understand that “the idealism” is one side of a Political-Religious Movement while “the hatred” is a separate component.  Within Islam, these two separate political-religious factions fight for supremacy.  While the religious component may be the same, the object of hatred is what defines them as two separate movements.

Another interesting issue within Political-Religious Movements is concern with the display of hypocrisy.  People wonder about leaders who “don’t practice what they preach.”  It is newsworthy when fundamentalist religious leaders engage in decidedly immoral activities, or ardent political leaders engage in activities that are in complete opposition to the practices they advocate.  (Recent examples involve Doug Phillips of Vision Forum Ministries and Leland Yee of the California state legislature.)

The significant point in each case is not the personal flaws exhibited by each individual.  It is that we mistakenly assume authoritarians are drawn to an organization because of a belief system.

That is clearly not the case.  Authoritarians do not seek out Communism, Socialism, or religious fundamentalism because of idealistic attraction.  They seek out the philosophy because of the opportunity to engage in authoritarian practices.

It is not a dedication to collectivism, or religious zeal, or whatever ideal the organization promotes, but the fact that the organization requires authoritarian leadership.  The authoritarian finds an opportunity to “never be wrong” and to “act with impunity,” and that’s what the authoritarian seeks.  The relevant ideology is simply a prop.

A final point to note is that Authoritarianism is never self-limiting.  It demands more and more accommodation and affirmation, and is limited only by the power of higher authority or the death of the authoritarian.

For good or for ill, this is what defines the human experience.

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