One often hears the term ‘messiah complex’ attributed to certain political leaders. On the surface, this term is not so difficult to understand. Also known as ‘saviour complex’, it is usually explained as a psychological state in which a person believes themself to be a saviour.
Even though such people can have an overtly inflated self-image, psychologists do not treat it as a disorder. But according to the February 6, 2017 edition of Psychology Today, the complex is not entirely normal. It can actually become problematic because it borders on disorders such as ‘delusions of grandeur’ and is also found in certain strains of schizophrenia.
The political variant of the messiah complex can become even trickier to study because it can be triggered in an individual by a society which is strongly ‘messianic’ in nature. In this case, a political leader may not inherently have a messiah complex, but he mimics the rhetoric and imagery related to ‘messianism’ of a society in order to advance his career as a politician or a possible ruler.
With the state unable to push a more rational political alternative, the wheel of messianic politics in the country continues to turn
L.M. Anderson writes in The Messianism of a Generation that societies that have gone through a series of disconcerting social, political or economic crises often become extremely receptive to messianic ideas of politics. Anything other than this they perceive as a vacuum which can only be filled by a saviour who embodies traits associated with an understanding of bygone mythical, national and religious heroes and their equally mythologised deeds.
Again, a saviour may appear in this vacuum either as a clever manipulator (à la Joseph Stalin) or as someone who actually does suffer from a messiah complex (such as Adolph Hitler). Either way, psychologists warn that things often do not end well for such leaders or for the societies in which they emerge.
Another way to understand political messianism has been the rather complex academic discipline called ‘political theology.’ Roots of this field can be found in the 1922 essay “Politische Theologie” by the German political theorist Carl Schmitt. He claims that all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularised theological concepts. He also suggests that power can only be achieved by those who are willing to “step outside the rule of law for national interest.”
According to Schmitt, religious beliefs and ideas might have lost ground during the rise of modernisation, but modern politics was actually a secularised expression of religious ideas. Schmitt supported Hitler and saw him as the man who became a sovereign by stepping outside the rule of law to regenerate the German nation — a political messiah.
Ever since Schmitt, the subject of political theology has remained controversial. It is seen as an illiberal rationale to justify the creation of the modern ‘Leviathan’ — a word used by 17th-century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes to claim that “absolute power of the sovereign was ultimately justified by the consent of the governed.”
Coming back to messianic societies, these are believed to be religious but operating in secularised conditions. This often finds them struggling in this dichotomy (but which, according to political theology, is not a dichotomy). Pakistan has been one such society. In times of crises, the polity has welcomed a series of political messiahs. But this is a country which was founded by a rational constitutionalist. However, he passed away just a year after the country’s creation and, unsurprisingly, was turned into a messianic figure by the state which was conscious of the polity’s messianic disposition.
Then, in 1958, the state produced a living political messiah, to great applause, in the shape of Ayub Khan. His 1967 biography Friends, Not Masters suggests that even though he was astute enough to fill the aforementioned vacuum, he also had a streak of the messiah complex. Ironically, he was cornered and then ousted by two other messianic politicians, Z.A. Bhutto and Shiekh Mujeeb. Shamim Ahmad’s book Z.A. Bhutto: The Psychodynamics of His Rise and Fall is not hesitant to present the former prime minister as a man who actually believed he was the saviour that Pakistan needed. And, for a while, he was treated as one.
When Bhutto was executed in 1979, political martyrdom became a vital addition to the polity’s messianic makeup. In fact, in the culture of Bhutto’s party, it is now directly related to political messianism, further intensified by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
What about the current Pakistani PM? Many have described him as someone with a messiah complex or who fits Schmitt’s description of a sovereign who comes to power (and retains it) by stepping outside established rules ‘for national interest.’
Like Bhutto, he understands parliamentary democracy through Hobbes’ lens of the Leviathan. Political theology describes the Leviathan as “totalitarian democracy”, in which draconian laws can be applied as long as they are in ‘national interest.’
But PM Khan’s is a minority government. It is a weak regime surviving almost entirely on the support of the establishment. For almost a decade, Khan meticulously branded himself as the messiah the nation had been waiting for. In the past, the messianism aspect of Pakistani society was largely understood to be associated with the ‘uneducated masses’. Interestingly, this time round, a large section of the ‘educated’ urban bourgeoise rapidly absorbed the political messianism projected by Khan while, ironically, at the same time lambasting the messianic politics associated with the Bhuttos and the Sharifs.
So, the wheel of messianic politics in the country continues to turn. The state seems to have run completely out of ideas to nourish a more rational political alternative that is outside the confines of Hobbes’ Leviathan and Schmitt’s political-theological sovereign: the ever-charming but ultimately failing political messiah.
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 3rd, 2019