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Theocracy in our time

The Islamic State is only one example of its surprising return

by Ronald Beiner

Human history is full of surprises. Who would have imagined that something called the Internet would come along and comprehensively transform how the inhabitants of this planet relate to one another not only culturally and socially but even politically? After 1989, when one had decent reason to believe that the age of totalitarian ideologies was definitively over (or at least banished for many generations), who would have expected a new totalitarian ideology to be a significant global player so soon? And who on earth would have predicted that ancient theocracy, of all things, would come to define the core of this new ideology?

The problem of religion and politics is obviously still very much with us. For 35 years, we have had a stubbornly illiberal clerical regime in Iran. In Egypt not long ago we saw a popularly elected theocratic government, which was subsequently overthrown by what amounted to a military coup. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are fighting deadly serious jihadi insurgencies with theocratic ambitions that may or may not be defeated. In Syria and Iraq, the jihadi movement that now calls itself “the Islamic State” (formerly ISIL or ISIS) aspires to a restored caliphate, and has been able to demonstrate, with notable military victories against the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, that those aspirations are not a wild fantasy. No one surveying the scene in 2014 could confidently assert that theocracy as a possible regime has been banished to the past.

Islam gets most of the headlines, but the problem of contemporary theocratic politics is by no means limited to Islamic contexts. In Israel, both domestic politics and relations with the Palestinians are severely complicated by theocratic political parties. In the Balkans, we recently saw the Serbian Orthodox Church trying to scuttle a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo brokered by the European Union. Or consider reports, not long ago, of radical Buddhist monks helping to incite anti-Islamic ethnic violence in central Myanmar. The last is perhaps especially disturbing (certainly if one presumes that no religious tradition could be more politically benign than Buddhism!) since it underscores the existence of ugly forms of theocratic politics beyond the ambit of the three Abrahamic faiths. We see a similar phenomenon in Hindu nationalism. Indeed, a theocratic potential exists in all the world religions.

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About the Author

Ronald Beiner
Ronald Beiner is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Political Philosophy: What It Is and Why It Matters (Cambridge University Press, 2014).




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