What is normally referred to as religious extremism or fundamentalism is just as much religious totalitarianism. Not only do people look to their holy scriptures and use them as the foundation for their individual lives, this foundation must also encompass everything and give the total answer to everything. Religion is no longer just an ethical and philosophical base, a personal faith which gives guidelines for one's personal behaviour; it is used to provide conclusive, non-debatable answers in any situation. Individual views and reflections disappear, and consideration for fellow human beings for their own sake also disappears. If it was ever there.
It is difficult to say how large a percentage of the various religious groups practises their religion in an extreme, totalitarian way, and it is equally impossible to find out if there are more people subscribing to totalitarian religion today than there were before, or if they are just getting more attention.
There is totalitarianism in all religions; only three examples have been chosen below.
In Judaism, religious totalitarianism is mainly related to the influence of Israel's ultra-Orthodox minority in Israeli politics. They make up an estimated 13% of Israel's population and their influence is mainly on certain matters of civic law in Israel, especially marriage legislation and in relation to the settlements in Palestine, as well as the citizenship rights of Israel's arab citizens. In 2011, ultra-Orthodox zealots also started demanding that men and women sit separately in certain buses, that women have to dress in a certain way in Orthodox neighborhoods, and that women mat not be shown in billboard advertising.
A common view in totalitarian Judaism is that the Messiah will come when all Jews in the world live by the law of The Torah (the five books of Moses), and that Israel's borders should be where they are described in the Bible, not where they were decided by the UN in 1947, or where they were before the Six Day War in 1967. Surveys show that 60-70% of Israelis support a dismantling of the settlements in exchange for peace.
The settlements were initiated as a security measure, but have since been given religious significance. Settlements are not an Israeli invention, however, but Roman. Machiavelli described the settlement strategy in "The Prince" in 1532: Another excellent way is to establish settlements (...) Settlements do not cost much and the Prince can finance and maintain them at little or no personal cost. He harms only those from whom he takes the land and houses to give to the new residents, and these victims represent a small minority and can never do any harm, since they remain poor and dispersed.
Even people on the Israeli right wing are beginning to realize that the settlements are a threat to democracy in Israel. One might also wonder why the very religious Jews have been reading Machiavelli for so long instead of reading their own prophet Isaiah chapter 5, verse 8: Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.
Among Jews outside Israel, there is hardly any mixing of religion and politics, possibly because most of the totalitarian religious Jews have already moved to Israel. There are definitely Jews outside Israel who do interfere in politics on Israel's behalf, but this is rarely from religious motives. It is purely political and on an equal footing with other interest groups' attempts to influence politics.
The image gets clouded by the fact that one of the Jews' main alliance partners in support of Israel belongs to the totalitarian Christian right, especially in the United States. Their political interest in Israel is religious, because they expect the Second Coming of Jesus on the day all the world's Jews are again living in Israel, which includes both the current Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. There are also Christians in Europe and elsewhere who support Israel and the settlements from these religious motives.
Totalitarian Christianity plays a particularly important role in American domestic politics over abortion and stem cell research, and on sex education and teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. In foreign policy, it affects the issues of warfare and foreign aid, where U.S. support depends on whether the money might be used to provide information about abortion and condoms. According to a 2006 survey, 35% of Americans believe that the Bible is literally the Word of God, and 32% believe that the Bible should have more influence than the will of the people on American law.
Totalitarian Islam wants to impose religious law, Sharia, based on the Koran and Mohammad's customs, rather than a secular law based on democratic principles. Some totalitarian Muslims speak of a caliphate, and dream of Muslim world domination, known as Umma. Similar to the expectations that totalitarian religious Jews and Christians have of the Messiah, and Communists had of the revolution, totalitarian religious Muslims expect that once the caliphate is established, the world will become a paradise, and everyone will live happily ever after. Then they will go to Paradise.
Hamas, the political party which won the Palestinian elections in 2006 but will not abandon the use of terror, is an example of totalitarian mixing of religious and political goals. The following quotation is from Article 17 of the Hamas charter:
A Muslim woman has no less an important role than a Muslim man in the fight for freedom. She creates men. Her role in the upbringing and education of new generations is great. Our enemies have realized her important role. They think that if they are able to guide and educate her in the way they want, away from Islam, they will have won their battle. That is why you see them make these constant attempts through information campaigns, films and educational material for which purpose they use their lackeys who are infiltrated by Zionist organizations under various names and forms, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, espionage groups and others who are nothing else but subversive cells and saboteurs. These organizations have ample resources that enable them to play their role in society with the aim of achieving the Zionists' targets and deepen the concepts that serve the enemy. These organizations operate in the absence of Islam and its estrangement among its people. The Islamic people should perform their task, by confronting the conspiracies of these saboteurs. The day Islam [reigns and] governs all aspects of life, these organizations that are hostile to humanity and Islam will be destroyed.
Since, according to most interpretations of Islam, the Koran is God's word, and there is no better law than that which is based on the Koran and Mohammad's customs, and since God according to the totalitarian mindset is just waiting for Islamic law to be imposed globally, it is, according to some Muslims, acceptable to use violence to achieve the goal. Death and mutilation are a small price to pay for the perfect world and there is direct access to paradise through martyrdom. What makes totalitarian Islam dangerous is thus not the Koran and the words in isolation, but the combination of the idea of the infallible text, the perfect world, paradise and personal martyrdom. In 2006, 73% of Lebanese, 43% of Jordanians, 27% of Indonesians and 13% of Turks thought that it was OK to use suicide bombings to defend and/or propagate Islam.
Totalitarian religion, the individual and women
Just as totalitarian Christianity, especially in the Middle Ages, shut the door on people's diversity and only allowed one educational ideal in Jesus, totalitarian Islam rejects individuality and presents Muhammad as the only educational ideal. It is therefore interesting that Christianity has produced as much violence as Islam, when it was Jesus, unlike Mohammad, who focused so heavily on turning the other cheek.
An interesting common feature of totalitarian religions and ideologies is that they regard a man as a sort of super-human, while they only consider women as birth machines - see the quote from Hamas above. Not only must personal expression be hidden, so must sexuality and womanhood; the demand from orthodox Jews that women be excluded from billboard advertising mentioned above is a good example. Even Communism, which claimed to advocate equality between women and men, oppressed women and denied everything that was female. There were no women in the Communist leadership anywhere, and when Communist propaganda portrayed women, they were usually just as square and muscular as men.
The one and only truth
Totalitarian religion is totalitarian religion. When it can't tolerate other truths than its own, and to the extent that it idealizes one particular man above everyone's individuality, things go wrong. Whichever religion it is.
Next chapter: Political Violence and Terror