27 December 2007

Theocracy Now! Episode 4,792

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi is neither entirely unexpected — she had already survived one public attempt since her most-recent return from exile, and I would have been quite surprised if there had not been another before the elections scheduled for 08 January — nor a good thing for anyone... except theocrats desperately searching for a unifying event. Unfortunately, that includes theocrats outside of Pakistan, and indeed outside of Islam.

The obvious "beneficiaries" of the assassination inside of Pakistan fall into three main groups. The first includes those whose personal powerbases would have been undermined by a PPP victory — or even substantial result placing the PPP as the leader of the opposition — in the upcoming polls. The second includes those advocating repressive measures as a means of "restoring" stability to Pakistan. ("Restoring," of course, assumes that there has ever been anything resembling "stability" in the Western sense in that nation, which is far from self-evident.) The third — which has significant overlaps with the first two — includes those unable to accept Bhutto on either a policy basis, because she did not advocate religious bigotry (let alone jihad), or a more-overtly religious basis, because she had no Y chromosome and yet dared to partake of affairs of state. Let's just say that none of these three groups is a friend of the rest of the world — a reasonable concern about a nuclear state — by any stretch of the imagination, let alone basic human rights (Western version or in the Q'ran itself, take your pick).

Obvious "beneficiaries" of the assassination in Islamic states include various splinter groups, but more particularly (and generally) Islamic theocrats. Iran is the example most Americans equate with "Islamic theocracy," but it is far from the only one. The horrible examples set by the religious militia in Saudi Arabia1 only begin the list. And that's neglecting the Taliban because it is purportedly not in power next door in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, theocracy is not limited to Islam. The awful historical example of the Catholic Church — which, in all the centuries since its founding, has not yet learned that structuring itself like a government is only going to attract the most politically oriented within it to positions of power, particularly those with the political inclination but not the existing secular power base — is an obvious example; so, unfortunately, is the ultra-Orthodox coalition in Israel, the Church of England, and disorganized conservative Protestantism in this country.

In my own musings over the candidates for President, I wish that I could apply a strict binary litmus test to every candidate: No candidate who either explicitly appeals to voters on the basis of religion, or advocates policies that necessarily mix religion and affairs of state, should even appear on the ballot. That, however, is a form of a "religious test" arguably prohibited by the Constitution — an irony that I acknowledge. Political disrespect for those who do not share one's religious beliefs is a frighteningly small step from transforming into more than mere "disrespect": To choose just one small area for that "disrespect," Epperson,2 Edwards,3 and Kitzmiller4 all involved substantial harassment of, and some level of violence against, those who objected to advocating creationism in biology classes. And that's a helluva lot more tolerant than one finds when religion and politics get inextricably intertwined — just ask Lillian Gobitis5 or Barnette.6

Being a member of two religious minorities — one by descent, one by choice — that are not in the mainstream of American political life, I'll be watching the theocrats in this country very closely indeed.

  1. Western, and particularly English-language, news sources generally call these groups the "Saudi religious police," which improperly implies that they operate both with and within legal sanction. Nothing could be further from the truth; the political structure in Saudi Arabia made a devil's bargain several decades ago that it now regrets, but has not the will or power to rescind.
  2. Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968).
  3. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).
  4. Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover (Pa.) Area Sch. Dist., 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005); see generally "Judgement Day," Nova (Corp. for Pub. Bdcast. 2007).
  5. Minersville Sch. Dist. v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940).
  6. West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943) (overruling Gobitis).