Friday June 21, 2024

The sacralization of politics

By Hussain H Zaidi
September 15, 2022

A cult leader is regarded by his/her followers as the epitome of virtue and wisdom and thus a complete stranger to the intellectual or moral lapses which ordinary mortals are subject to.

While at times the leader may appear to have gone over the line, there’s always a hidden – verging on the esoteric – meaning to such acts, which can only be discerned with the eye of faith. Not surprisingly, the cult leader’s words and deeds themselves become the criteria for judging right and wrong, good and evil.

Promoting an idealized image of a leader to defend their ‘inalienable’ right to rule goes back to antiquity. In Egypt, the king was treated as a divine being, whom the subjects owed total submission, not as a matter of expediency or pragmatism, but as the supreme religious obligation. It’s said that Alexander the Great was so thoroughly swept by this mystical doctrine that he proclaimed himself to be a god after he had visited the temple of Amun Ra, the chief god in Egyptian pantheon, following the conquest of Egypt.

Thenceforth, Alexander commanded his troops to deify him, which marked the beginning of the deification of kings in the West. Julius Caesar, the next great conqueror, was also profoundly impressed with the god-king idea. He had his statue set up in a temple with the inscription: “To the unconquerable god.” The following year the self-proclaimed god-king was assassinated.

The divinity of kings took a milder form in Medieval Europe in the shape of the theory of divine rights. Though he was not deemed to be a god, the king was believed to rule by divine right, which meant that he could be judged only by God and wasn’t answerable to the people. In the words of England’s King James, the office of the monarch is a mystery into which no mortal may inquire.

With the advent of the Renaissance in the 15th century, European thought began to assume a secular streak. However, political cultism remained a potent force in both theory and practice. Machiavelli, easily the most representative political theorist of the new age, in his seminal work ‘The Prince’, provided a complete recipe for establishing and maintaining a political cult and exercising untrammelled powers without postulating divine sanctions for the right to rule. His ideal prince, inter alia, is a dab hand at pulling wool over people’s eyes by presenting a false image of his religiosity and morality.

With the growth of democracy, the political leader began to be regarded as an ordinary mortal, with limited powers, for which they were answerable to the people, and a shelf life, after which they may be shown the door. The end of the First World War saw the resurgence of cult politics in the form of fascism in Italy and national socialism in Germany. But both varieties of fascism eclipsed as quickly as they had risen. However, in the East, cultism, drawing sustenance from the corresponding cultural ethos, has remained virile.

Sociologist Max Weber identified three sources of authority or leadership: traditional, legal-rational, and charismatic. Political cults fall in the third category. As opposed to the other two foundations of authority, charisma entails obedience to a person. The cult leader has an indefeasible and unrestrained right to govern, because they are seen to have been endowed with some superhuman, or at the very least superior, qualities.

For example, in the context of Pakistan, if most other politicians are allegedly corrupt, the cult leader is regarded as thoroughly clean. If others are deemed fickle, the cult leader is treated as a man of principles. Whether in fact the cult leader is a cut above the rest is beside the point. What counts is his larger-than-life and holier-than-thou image. This makes effective propaganda – these days an adroit use of digital platforms – the key to the making of a cult leader.

Effective governance essentially entails having that exceptional – in fact, a messianic, godlike – person at the helm and letting them rule without let or hindrance. The conflicting claims to power often pit the cults against the law of the land as well as long-standing political conventions, with the cult showing at best a conditional respect for the legal-cum-institutional framework.

Political cults, like their religious counterparts, function like a creed. At the apex is the charismatic leader, whose word is absolutely binding regardless of its content. At the bottom are the followers, who are supposed to obey the leader’s command mindlessly, blindly, and slavishly. Between the two are a brigade of advisers, spokespersons, propagandists, and media persons, who are tasked with cementing or maintaining the bond between the leader and the followers. Unlike followers, these intermediaries aren’t necessarily emotionally attached to the leader but behave as if they were.

As creeds have doctrines, cults have narratives, which, in a word, promise to create a heaven on earth. The narratives may change according to the circumstances – an anti-corruption narrative may give way to an anti-state one, a pro-establishment narrative may be replaced with one which is anti-establishment – but the essential messianic message remains the same. In this way, a community of emotionally charged but mentally dumb followers, who have a chip on their shoulder, comes into being. The opponents of the cult are ostracized, demonized, and stigmatized as thieves, traitors, foreign agents, enemies of the people, and what not, with whom no dialogue, no compromise, no detente is possible.

The stage is set for sacralization of politics in which one is either a believer or a heretic, either clean every inch or corrupt to the bone, either a saint or a sinner, either an angel or a demon. Anyone hoping to engage the cult followers in a decent debate will soon realize they’re fighting a losing battle, because the cult is essentially an irrational contrivance and thrives on irrationality. Challenged with facts, the cult will throw facts on scrapheap; show them that their arguments are illogical, the cult will dismiss reasoning and argumentation as a sign of moral weakness; point out to them the untenability of their position, the cult will hit back at the messenger.

As it’s impossible to transfer charisma to another person, running a charismatic system is a tall order. This makes a cult inherently an unstable form of authority, leadership, and governance. A country ruled by a cult leader in the absence of a credible legal-cum-institutional framework may show a semblance of stability for some time. But this stability is normally a house of cards, likely to fall apart as the sun sets on the cult leader. On its part, the eclipse of a cult leader is seldom a smooth landing because of the sacralization of politics that it has affected. For both these reasons, in the long run cult politics isn’t good for a polity and should not be encouraged.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.


Twitter: @hussainhzaidi