In 1991 the (rightly) distinguished Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington published The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (a book that greatly expanded on an earlier article). The book itself made big waves. It was very well timed. Democracy seemed to be transforming much of the world: Beginning in 1989 the Soviet Union and most of its empire was collapsing, one domino after another. It was reasonable to expect that the economic reform that had begun in China in 1979 would eventually lead to political reform. Dictatorships were falling across the world—from Latin America, to Spain, to the Philippines, to South Korea. This was not a case of one sequence of toppled dominos; there were different causes in each case. Religion played a role in some of the cases, not in all. Huntington noted this. He was particularly interested in the changing role of the Roman Catholic Church.Are we now witnessing a new wave of democratization? Hardly. At the moment it seems more like a dawning day of the tyrants. My shtick in this blog is religion, in bed with some of the neo-tyrants, not with all. If there were an international competition for the most promising candidates for the title of promising neo-tyrant, three names would pop up: Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Xi Jinping of China. Each of these men started out quite differently in earlier stages of their political careers; each of them became big disappointments for those hoping for democratization. A few news flashes:On June 28, 2016 the news magazine Eurasia Review reported that the Duma, the Russian parliament, approved the new “anti-terrorist law”. [TAI wrote about it here.] This has little to do with terrorism. Rather it is yet another step in Putin’s inexorable campaign to make his regime more authoritarian, in line with his stated conviction that the end of the Soviet Union was a great catastrophe. The new law sets up strict controls over non-governmental organizations receiving funds from abroad. This severely affects human rights and religious groups other than the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow supports this and other domestic as well as international actions of the Kremlin. Kirill has just come close to preventing the Pan-Orthodox Council meeting in Greece – it was convoked by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, whose status as the symbolic head of worldwide Orthodoxy is contested by Kirill, who wants to revive the idea of his patriarchate as the Third Rome. That is in accord with Putin’s imperial ambitions. Both men are particularly eager to harass so-called “non-traditional churches in Russia”, notably the Roman church and its Uniat affiliates (who recognize the authority of the Pope but retain Orthodox rites), as well aggressively missionary Evangelical Protestants. In effect the two men are busily reviving the concept of sinfonia, which in tsarist times described the ideal relationship between the Orthodox Church and the state.On June 21, 2016 al-Jazeera broadcast a news item on Turkey, which it covers regularly. (The network is owned by the government of Qatar, which has an ambivalent relationship with radical Islamism. Al-Jazeera claims editorial independence—I cannot assess this claim, but purely factual reporting seems reliable.) The item reports that Turkey has arrested three advocates for freedom of the press, including one from the international organization “Reporters without Borders”. The charge is “terror propaganda”. This is yet another move by Erdogan to take over all significant media and to punish journalists who disagree with his policies. The similarity with Putin’s similar tactics is striking. Aspiring tyrants cannot tolerate dissent. However, the disappointment with Erdogan is greater. When the AKP, his party, was elected both his rhetoric and first moves were very encouraging. He claimed to accept democracy and the secular republic established by Kemal Ataturk in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Despite the Islamist origins of the AKP, Erdogan disavowed any intention of setting up an Islamic state, and rather supported freedom of religion for practicing Muslims (who had indeed been discriminated against by the Kemalists). When he first came to power, Erdogan moved to defang the military, which had been the main opponent of democracy. He entered into negotiations with the Kurds to achieve greater rights for them, he carried out an essentially pro-Western foreign policy, and he pushed the negotiations for the entry of Turkey into the European Union.All of this changed after the early years of the AKP government. Domestically, he drew back from the incipient democratizing measures and restarted the repressive campaign against the Kurds. In foreign policy he rhetorically supported the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in Syria while conducting air raids against Kurdish forces there, he stopped the previous collaboration with Israel and made a deal with the EU to help reduce the flow of migrants through Turkey (while pressing for the right of Turkish citizens to move and settle anywhere in Europe). The Erdogan government has begun a policy of privileging Muslim institutions, especially in education and has indeed allowed public exhibition of Muslim symbols (notably “modest” attire by women) that were repressed under Kemalism. Still, compared to what has been going on in neighboring Muslim-majority countries this “Islamization” has been relatively mild (supposedly an expression of traditional Ottoman civility, distinguishing Turkey from the Arab world). Other action by Erdogan can hardly be called mild.On June 6, 2016 The New York Times along with other media reported on a news conference by Lam Wing-Kee, one of five booksellers gone missing from Hong Kong, and rumored to have been abducted and taken to the mainland. Lam made a public statement there to the effect that he had gone there voluntarily. He did manage to return to Hong Kong. In this news conference back home he said that the earlier confession was coerced, that he was abducted because he sold books that were critical of the Communist regime, and that this sort of action violated the commitment by China to respect the special legal and political institutions of the former British colony after its reunification with the People’s Republic. This reach into Hong Kong by the PRC’s security apparatus was but one of many events indicating an increasingly authoritarian (if not totalitarian) direction under President Xi Jinping, dashing any hopes for political liberalization anytime soon. It has been pointed out that Xi has concentrated more power in his own hands than any Chinese head of state since Mao. Domestically, any public expression of dissent from the party line has been efficiently suppressed.As happened in Putin’s Russia, the humanitarian horrors committed under Communism have been muted in public, but Xi has gone further: He has recently urged party cadres to study Mao’s writings and order Maoist songs to be sung in schools. As yet, however, Stalin’s portrait doesn’t hang over the entrance to the Kremlin, as Mao’s does over the main gate into the Forbidden City in Beijing. [I had seen pictures of it before and expected it, but was nevertheless shocked when I first saw it. I tried to imagine the reactions in Europe and America if a portrait of Hitler were placed on top of the Brandenburg Gate!] If domestic policy under Xi smells of totalitarian instincts, his foreign policy is increasingly aggressive, against Japan in the dispute over those tiny islands in the East China Sea and against expressions of American power in East Asia. There is no religious analogy to the church/state sinfonia in Russia, but the Xi government has urged the State Administration of Religious Affairs to tighten its control over all religions, especially “foreign” ones, notably Christianity. In some regions crosses were removed from the outside of churches and even entire church buildings were demolished, supposedly for violations of safety regulations. The Roman Catholic Church is suspect because of its allegiance to Rome, while Evangelical Protestants are resented for their very successful evangelism. The government favors “traditional Chinese” religions such as Confucianism (though mainly revered for its ethics), Daoism and even local folk religion. Islam is suspect because of its linkage with Uighur nationalism in the west, to a lesser degree Buddhism because of Tibet. (The Chinese foreign ministry reacts with rage if the Dalai Lama is received with respect by any foreign government, or even by a foreign celebrity—as recently by Lady Gaga!)On June 28, 2016 Religion and Geopolitics, an online bulletin of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, published a news item about the Yemen peace talks being discontinued once more. The bulletin deals exclusively with Islamist terrorism, perhaps to inform Tony Blair, the former British prime-minister who has been given the unenviable mandate of reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. More likely, it will profoundly depress him, as it does me when I open the bulletin of his foundation. As one moves to the Middle East from the terrible trio just discussed, one cannot nominate three individuals for the tyrant title. There are tyrants all over. The aforementioned news item refers to the ongoing civil war in Yemen, which puts the internationally recognized (Sunni) government against the (Shi’a) Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia has massively intervened (mainly with air power) against the Houthis, regarded as agents of Iranian imperialism. Yemen’s conflict has accordingly become a surrogate war between Sunnis and Shi’a, respectively supported by Saudi Arabia and Iran. These two states, though mortal enemies, are ruled by different radical versions of Islam. The much-applauded “Arab Spring” has not only disappointed the hope that it would foster a great democratic upsurge, but (with the possible exception of Tunisia) has done nothing of the sort. Rather it has led to the rise of ISIS and its monstrous “caliphate”, disastrous new and increasingly internationalized civil wars in Iraq and Syria, new dictatorships (Egypt), wobbly “moderate” regimes (Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon), and utter chaos (Libya). As to the role of religion in the Middle East, probably the less said, the better. (Except to say, which I have said before, that the best hope for the future of that unfortunate region is the sort of ideology which Erdogan’s party in Turkey proposed when it assumed power but then, alas, put aside—a democratic regime inspired by genuine Islamic values.)In the human rights discourse in the US there is a rather patronizing concept: “countries of concern”. This generally means countries in which egregious violations of rights are not, or not yet, occurring but about which there is reason to worry. I would put India and South Africa in this category. Neither Narendra Modi nor Jacob Zuma can be called tyrants. India, as every American official keeps repeating upon arrival there, is the most populous democracy in the world. In 1994 a free non-racial vote in South Africa elected president Nelson Mandela (one of the most admirable political leaders of the twentieth century). Ever since, the new South Africa has been plausibly perceived to be the result of a great moral victory. The change was supported by virtually all the English-speaking churches, finally joined by the Dutch Reformed Church which had for a long time legitimated the apartheid regime.Both countries have functioning democratic constitutions, an independent judiciary, and a free press. But under both Modi and Zuma these institutions have been undermined by actions which, respectively, tolerate the influence of a fanatical religious ideology (Hindu nationalism), and where the country is inundated by a flood of corruption (such as Zuma’s use of tax funds to build a luxurious estate for himself in his home village). In neither country is the story over. But “concern”? Yes, definitely.What about the democracies in the Western world? None of them are threatened to lapse into tyrannies any time soon. But the stability of the democratic order is under stress both in the European Union and the United States. The EU is under a major threat brought on by an escalation of crises—the split between the rich north and the poor south in the euro zone, the “democracy deficit” in the EU institutions (caught by the pejorative metaphor “Brussels”), and the rise of a new wave of radical populism rejecting the ideal of greater European unity, and finally the recent mass migration of desperate people clamoring for entry. Most recently, the pro-Brexit vote in Britain threatens not only the very existence of the United Kingdom, but may well spill over into other countries.In the U.S. the political system has become dysfunctional to the point where partisan polarization has paralyzed the three branches of government. The current presidential election has produced two candidates whom nobody likes and between whom it is difficult to pick the lesser evil. The populist movements on the two sides of the Atlantic strangely resemble each other. [I wonder: Is it coincidence that the hair styles of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson also resemble each other? As do their styles of public presentation? I assume that the Etonian Johnson has better table manners.]With all these intra-Atlantic crises the world order established after World War II on the basis of American power is now quite wobbly. That power has lost credibility as a result of both the reckless foreign adventures of George W. Bush and the dislike of military power by Barack Obama. On the latter, just one leaf in the wind: While the U.S. is urgently in need of Turkey’s cooperation in the Middle East, the police forcefully broke up a gay pride parade in Istanbul. In the wake of that event the U.S. embassy in Ankara raised the flag of the gay movement. [As I have indicated before, I agree with many aims of the gay movement, and I have no admiration for Turkish police methods. But U.S. domestic policy requires awareness of the feelings of the millions of Americans who are conservative Christians. U.S. foreign policy must also understand conservative Muslims, whose support is essential for the defeat of ISIS and other terrorist Islamist groups.]It is understandable that the American public is tired of the U.S. playing the role of global sheriff. And perhaps one should not blame Obama too much for following public opinion, nor blame the Congress that does the same in those areas where the two parties basically agree (such as on “no American boots on the ground”). But in the real world soft power generally depends on the credibility of hard power, of which the U.S. still has a preponderance (both military and economic). One cannot rely on persuasive rhetoric (the famous Cairo speech addressed to the Muslim world) and then dramatically refuse to use hard power after having threatened it (the “red line” in Syria). What is required on both sides of the Atlantic is the emergence of political leaders who are both hard-nosed and morally responsible. If only one could advertise!Religion has weaved in and out of all these issues, more so in the U.S. (a more religious country than those in Europe). But it seems to me that one should assess the political role of religion not only in terms of whether religious institutions endorse or fail to endorse policies one favors. There is a more basic contribution of religion to the political order: the perception (or, if one prefers, the intuition) that there are other realities, ultimately benign, behind the reality in which all actions in history occur. Transcendence in this sense relativizes history and all our projects in it. This can be a very liberating experience. Put concretely: Putin may change his march toward a revived Soviet Union, this time blessed by priests wearing tall black hats. Or he may reverse this course, be it because of a personal conversion, or (more likely) because of a calculation that the survival of the corrupt system that is in his interest requires a change of direction. I’m more interested in his actions than in his motives. Yet the most basic religious wisdom is that finally it doesn’t matter: There is an order of meaning that transcends political reality.
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Published on: July 6, 2016
Religion & Other CuriositiesDay of the Tyrants?
As democratic progress stalls around the world, what is required on both sides of the Atlantic is the emergence of political leaders who are both hard-nosed and morally responsible. If only one could advertise!