Why the Islamic Religion is Not “Totalitarian”

The trend of labeling the Islamic religion as “totalitarian” is far too provocative to leave unanswered. Those who argue that Islam, or the Muslim faith, is by its very nature totalitarian turn a semantic gaffe into a pejorative and hostile dogma which, in turn, becomes an article of faith for the avid fans of Fox News. Given the social cost of mobilizing a large segment of the population to fear and abhor Muslims, this error must be addressed.

What do we mean when we use the world “totalitarian”? In her famous book on the topic, Hannah Arendt used the word “totalitarian” to describe the new regimes in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia which had surpassed the expanse of past tyrannies, thus calling for a new term to mark this distinction.

What made these two regimes so mind-boggling and unprecedented was their success in the total domination of a country through a combination of political ideology and constant terror. Arguments attempting to demonstrate how totalitarianism evolves are complicated by the fact that totalitarianism does not appeal to traditional laws or political conventions. Instead, a totalitarian system remains the servant of a higher power— for Hitler, this was the Law of Nature while for Stalin this was historical materialism.

In his essay, “The Anti-Totalitarian Revolution”, Edgar Morin provides a very useful and detailed description of totalitarianism. In his words:

“It is a system based on the monopoly of a party which is unique not only because it is the only party allowed to exist and to have power at its disposal, but because it is a most unusual sort of party. It is a party in which all spiritual and temporal powers are concentrated in the apparatus which governs, controls, and administers. This apparatus can do anything and knows everything. It is a disciplinarian, an activist, a scholar, a soldier, a director, and a policeman, all rolled up into one. At the same time, it is the sacred bearer of an absolute truth which has two grounds for its self-assurance. The first of these is the clear and visible scientific basis which is the knowledge of all truth concerning the world, especially the laws of history. The other is the deep hidden basis of religious conviction with its promise of earthly salvation revealed by these laws of history.”

What distinguishes a totalitarian system from a tyranny or a nondemocratic regime is this all-encompassing scientific creed which dictates everything from the number of widgets that must be produced to the greetings and salutations used in the everyday life of its citizens.

One, of course, could use the term “totalitarian” flippantly to describe an all-encompassing worldview. If one used the term in this inaccurate, generalized sense, then Islam is certainly totalitarian. In fact, Christianity, Judaism, and even Buddhism would have to be considered totalitarian for the very nature of religion is to provide an all-encompassing worldview that governs every aspect of one’s life. Religions are systems of belief which allow access to Truth in its most powerful, important, and divine sense. Being a Christian, much like being a Muslim, is not intended to be little flourish on one’s resume, a weekend hobby, or an occasional dabbling. Instead, it is meant to be the sole venue of Truth and self-government.

Islamist governments, like Christian governments, are totalitarian (in this broad sense) to the extent that they enforce religious views. But Islamist and Christian governments, properly construed, are based on the recognition of a god or deity as the state’s supreme civil ruler. Since this god is supernatural,  the state is usually governed by officials who are considered to have access to divine guidance (i.e. a mullah, the Pope, the divine right of kings, etc.).

There is actually a very appropriate term for such governments— they are called “theocracies”. Unlike totalitarian systems, theocracies do not base their government on access to a scientific truth. Instead, they base their governments on a relationship to the will of God; this is their source of legitimacy. While history reveals that most theocracies are authoritarian regimes that limit human freedom, to call them “totalitarian” is a nihilistic approach to meaning that falsely elevates equivocation. It helps to recall that equivocation makes for nasty bedfellows; one of it’s best practitioners was Stalin, who constantly described the Soviet Union as a bastion of “freedom”.

Equivocations and passionate orations aside, we should agree to use words in a manner which dignifies meaning. In her most beautiful book, Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt warns against the costs of  wishy-washy word-tossing:

“There exists, however, a silent agreement in most discussions among political and social scientists that we can ignore distinctions and proceed on the assumption that everything can eventually be called anything else, and that distinctions are meaningful only to the extent that each of us has the right to ‘define his terms’. Yet does not this curious right, which we have come to grant as soon as we deal with matters of importance— as though it were actually the same as the right to one’s own opinion— already indicate that such terms as ‘tyranny’, ‘authority’, ‘totalitarianism’ have simply lost their common meaning, or that we have ceased to live in a common world where the words we have in common possess an unquestionable meaningfulness, so that, short of being condemned to live verbally in an altogether meaningless world, we grant each other the right to retreat into our own worlds of meaning, and demand only that each of us remain consistent within his own private terminology?”

Rather than abandon a shared world of meaning in which words can be said to function as designators of ideas or reality, we should work harder to use words in a meaningful fashion. Surely that is not such an insurmountable task. The worst that might happen in an attempt to use language with integrity would be to discover that our language lacks a proper term. Then, as David Brooks so aptly demonstrates, you can feel free to coin a new term.

[Cross-posted at totalitarianism today.]

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