The concept of totalitarianism — that is, the concept that a government can control both the public and private lives of its citizens — has only been part of the international dialogue for about a century. But despite its young age, totalitarianism has been associated with such familiar movements as Nazism and Fascism. Recently, the term "religious totalitarianism" has even emerged to describe political systems which use religion to control people.

Basic Characteristics of Totalitarianism

In an ideal totalitarian system, a central authority strives to ensure that all members of society work together as part of a unified whole and that no one opposes the views or actions of the authority. This means that the central authority, headed by a dictator type, exerts total control over every organization and association that enters its radar. It also means that the authority forces its citizens into public displays of support, such as parades or ceremonies in which citizens champion the central authority’s ideologies and decisions.

Methods of Control

What sets totalitarian governments apart from other dictatorships is their attempts to control the private lives of their citizens as well as those citizens' public lives. This means that in addition to commanding total dominance over such public cultural institutions as art, science and education, totalitarian governments also influence people's personal decisions such as how many children they can have or where they can travel. As political theorist Hannah Arendt put it, “totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within."

Religious Totalitarianism

Religious totalitarianism, on the other hand, is a term used to describe governments or religious movements that recognize only one religion and demand that others follow that religion's beliefs and practices. Additionally, a religious totalitarian organization will attempt to eradicate other religions via sometimes violent means. Commonly associated with fundamentalism, religious totalitarianism is a worldview that draws from mainstream religious texts but radically reinterprets those texts to justify the denouncement of other religions.

Examples of Totalitarianism

The highest profile instance of contemporary totalitarianism is the government of North Korea, which combines effective propaganda and restrictions on its citizens’ interactions with the outside world in order to maintain total control over its citizens. However, religious totalitarianism has also been associated with the ideals of the Taliban, who use their Islamic religion to justify the eradication of other, more pluralistic religions such as Christianity and Judaism. More specifically, Taliban leaders call on "sharia," or Islamic law, to excoriate non-Islamic religions.