Death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raïssi: what is a “theocracy”?

Death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raïssi: what is a “theocracy”?

What is the origin of the word “theocracy”?

Its etymology comes from ancient Greek. Terms theos And kratia mean “God, divinity” and “rule, governance” respectively. As opposed to “democracy” – a regime whose sovereignty emanates from the people, the demos –, this neologism was originally coined in the first century AD by the historian Flavius ​​Josephus (37-100) to describe the governance of the Jewish people in biblical times. “He thus used it to characterize the constitution based on the Law of Moses in relation to the monarchical, oligarchic and popular regimes identified by Greek political thought, which provided a conceptual grid for all of Antiquity and beyond,” traces historian Marie-Françoise Baslez (1946-2022), specialist in the religions of the Greco-Roman world, in her work The Gods and Power. At the origins of theocracy (1).

According to the researcher, the notion implies in particular for Flavius ​​Josephus the idea of ​​a “government of God over all things”, “the best constitution being that which “makes God the universal head (hegemôn)” while the priests are only administrators acting in the common interest”. It thus implied two levels of domination – that of God, and that of the priests – juxtaposed but very distinct,without there being any incompatibility in principle between the sovereignty of God and the political regime applied by men, the latter doing the will of God under divine supervision.

How has this notion been historically translated into different forms of governance?

It is difficult to draw up an exhaustive picture here, as the spectrum is so broad and can call upon, over the ages, different degrees of overlap between temporal and spiritual powers. In addition to the Judean model in which Flavius ​​Josephus was particularly interested, ancient Egypt functioned, for example, as a theocratic monarchy. Revered as the offspring of the sun god Ra, the pharaoh was considered to have received the anointing of the deities – themselves perceived as the supreme authorities – to govern. He then plays the role of intermediary between the people and them.

In Imperial Japan, the emperor was revered as the descendant of the Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu, much like ancient Chinese emperors were seen as sons of heaven. In the West, the Roman emperors (Augustus, Julius Caesar, etc.) asserted their divine ancestry. But some specialists do not consider Rome to be a true theocracy before the Emperor Constantine (272-337) who became, after his conversion, a champion of Christianity which he had established as an official religion. Likewise, before the French Revolution, the divine right monarchy at work in the country may constitute another form of theocracy.

What are still examples of modern “theocracies”? How is this model evolving?

Unlike secular states where religious practice falls under private law – as in France – theocracies are generally understood, in the current sense of the term, as modes of government within which power is exercised by religious people or by a sovereign considered to be the representative of God. Civil and religious laws are still generally confused, without strict separation between spiritual and temporal powers.

Two contemporary examples particularly illustrate these aspects: Iran and Saudi Arabia. “These two models do not reflect the resurgence of a traditional phenomenon, but constitute a political reinvention,” analyzes historian Valentine Zuber, director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (PSL) and holder of the chair of religions and international relations. On the side of the Riyadh regime, she specifies, “the Saud dynasty rules the country based on an alliance with the Wahhabi clergy (2)and the crown prince, Mohammed Ben Salmane, poses as the head of the Sunni religion. In Iran, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, “the authority of the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, since 1989, Editor’s note)leader of the Shiites, is superior to political power embodied in particular by the figure of the president,” she continues. But in an increasingly secularized world, “theocracies remain a very small minority, and tend to disappear”.

Considering the examples cited, could Islam be considered a more favorable breeding ground for the emergence of these theocratic models? Warning against the risk “essentialization of a very plural religion”, the researcher concedes that this can encourage this confusion in places, particularly when “the theological aspect is relegated to the background of the legal content” – with, for example, an exalted recourse to Sharia law, as is still observed in Taliban Afghanistan.

What abuses can theocracies still encourage?

In fact, theocracies generally favor those who practice the “official” religion, to the detriment of religious minorities who are then exposed to various forms of discrimination. For example, the authorities can prohibit them from preaching or meeting in public spaces, sometimes imposing very heavy sanctions on those who resist. Even if they officially tolerate certain communities, they may pass laws restricting their freedoms of conscience or worship – by limiting the size of their religious buildings, for example, or prohibiting them from selling items linked to the practice of their faith. .

Having a religion that occupies a preponderant place in the public life of certain countries does not, on the other hand, make them theocracies. Around forty states around the world – the United Kingdom, the United States, etc. – thus recognize in their Constitution a special place for a religion, considered as the state religion, while also guaranteeing full legal equality. to citizens of other faiths.

(1) Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2016, 180 p., €18.

(2) Movement which advocates a return to the fundamentals of Islam.

Similar Posts