As one of the local rulers was passing by in a parade on TV, a wonderful fanfare was playing in the background. Now, a good fanfare has all the feeling of pomp and splendour that we associate with royalty. It helps us to understand the FUNCTION of royalty. Above all, such a fanfare makes us feel very glad to HAVE a royalty.
But it may do little good to meditate upon royalty, of which there are so many examples in the world, and of so many different qualities. The qualities of royalty are very dependent upon the moral fibre or character of the royal persons themselves, and this element is highly variable.
The Iranian Shah-hin-shah who preceded the Ayatollah Khomeini was said to have been modernizing some aspects of his kingdom as rapidly as possible, yet Muslims felt there was too much suffering of one sort or another in this process. The Shah’s secret police were said to be most fearful and cruel.
The Saudi secret police are also feared, yet not much is mentioned of this group in the media, since Saudi has even more oil than Iran. I asked my Saudi patron-prince why young men were dragged out of my Arab hotel every week, obviously against their will, and was told they were being arrested for various offenses against the king.
Of what are they charged? Well, it doesn’t much matter. Many of them are never seen again. Families often cannot locate their members after they have been arrested. Thrown out of a helicopter in the middle of the desert is a favorite punishment. Now this was in the 1980’s, since which time there is said to have been improvement in such high-handed tactics.
Then we also have virtual kings who call themselves presidents. Suharto was one of these, as is Mubarak of Egypt and General Bachir of the Sudan. These figures always claim to have more than 90% of their so-called “popular votes”, which is a dead giveaway that they are really kings in disguise, and which usually hide widespread unpopularity among the people.
No democratic leader ever achieves such a huge percentage of the vote. Look at the Americans. Popular elections over there are always right around 50-50 to the two major party leaders, Republican and Democrat.
Malaysia’s Barisan came down from its long-standing suspicious highs in the 90% bracket, to around 75% recently, and then 66%. And now the upcoming Terengganu by-election will show us how valid the Malaysian democratic experiment really is.
If democracy is really preparing to “take off” in Malaysia, the Kuala Terengganu election must continue to break the previous strangle-hold that UMNO’s Barisan has had on the country for fifty years. It DOES NOT MATTER who the opposition is, so long as they are reasonably competent. The important thing is that Malaysia must now evolve into a real two-party democracy. The people must feel they have a very real CHOICE with their vote.
Why does it matter? Malaysia may have been blessed with a series of Prime Ministers of real integrity and skill, but such is not always the case. Democratic processes are needed to give the people power to correct for faulty government that shows up from time to time. Barack Obama may be considered the American democracy’s correction of some excess of the previous eight Bush years.
There is also a very important ideological point in favor of genuine two-party rule. Corruption, as a destroyer of the integrity of a people’s governance, cannot easily be controlled by means of “self-policing”. The only real control on corruption is the possibility that corrupt or even seemingly corrupt officials will be voted out, will lose their jobs to the opposition.
Now, what Malaysia has, along with the majority of Muslim nations, is a royalty. The function of royalty as the moral or cultural figurehead is a good thing, and the present Sultan of Yogyakarta in Indonesia made this point very strongly when he was inaugurated in 1988, that he was NO MORE than the repository of Javanese culture in front of the people.
Unfortunately, President Suharto did not follow this same wisdom and behaved as kings behave, issuing “presidential decrees” that became law, and passing out the perks of his position to all his children. Presidents do NOT make law in democracies, and the sharing of wealth by means of “nepotism” or “insider information” is strictly forbidden.
So Suharto was a Javanese king who only called himself a “president”. His insistence that he did no wrong toward the end only reflected his understanding that he only did what kings everywhere did. He had no idea of his responsibilities as a president, and should not have been given that title. No wonder the people were confused.
Tun Dr. Mahathir of Malaysia made a most important point when he voluntarily retired a few years ago. His point was that he was a Prime Minister, and not a king in the disguise of “president for life”. Perhaps he felt he needed to make this point due to his long previous rule.
In any case, subjects of the “de facto” kings of the Muslim Middle East are reported to have been amazed that the Tun actually stepped down. “Why would he do that?” they asked. No leader in that part of the Muslims world had ever done such a thing, nor ever would, it seemed to the people.
The various leaders of Muslims in Africa and the Middle East are also fascist monarchies in fact, if not in name. These leaders have absolute power. When, for example, a parliament was formed in Saudi Arabia, a full-page newspaper ad subsequently appeared, “thanking” his “beloved majesty” for “giving” his subjects a parliament.
Why is it so difficult to discover the roots of the democratic principle in Muslim history? The issue, after the death of the Prophet, was between Abu Bakr r.a who stated that the Prophet is dead, and that as for those who worship the One God, Allah lives forever – and Umar Al-Khattab r.a, who was caught out in this case, having been quoted as claiming that the Prophet could never really die, and such like.
The Shi’a divergence was precisely on this point. The Shi’a insisted on a royal line, i.e., the family blood of the Prophet as a basis for further leadership. The Sunnis resorted to election, in the form of consensus gained by “shura”, or group consultation, as to who the next leader would be.
If Abu Bakr (r.a.) was that leader, then we can see that the democratic process prevailed over the call for empowering or enshrining the Prophet’s descendants as royal blood. We can see that, if the first four Caliphs really were “Rightly Guided”, then democracy has a central and vital role to play in securing the best leadership for future generations of Muslims.
In the modern world, it seems that Indonesia, and, with some modifications, Iran, are spearheading the cause of popular election among Muslims. The Indonesians have even moved beyond the previous parliamentary mode of electing their president to a fully popular mode – the popular vote prevails, as it still does not even in America.
Malaysia is poised to join this democratic “elite” among Muslim nations, if only she will move beyond the one-party de facto dictatorship of UMNO, as Indonesia has done in the case of their former “umbrella party” GOLKAR. Vice-president Kalla is GOLKAR, as is even the Sultan of Yogyakarta, but there are other major parties that are not, and these non-GOLKAR parties have been fielding such potential leaders as Gus Dur, Megawati, Susilo Yudhoyono, Amien Rais, and others.
So UMNO need not fear extinction. She only need clear the field for other leaders and other ideologies to emerge and compete in healthy, open democratic election. Over and over again, I hear the common people longing for a “real choice”, not necessarily to disband or dishonor UMNO. And their instinct is probably a good one, because corruption IS a major danger and can very much more effectively be dealt with in a multi-party system.
Meanwhile, the principle of “blood line” that meant so much to the Shi’a Muslims is honored in the Malay monarchy, the Indonesian sultanates, and even the British royal family, as a “moral safeguard” or repository of the goodness and moral fibre of the populace.
Limitations on the precise powers and duties of royalty are defined constitutionally, and always subject to debate and adjustment, as Tun Dr. Mahathir showed in his dealings with the Royal Families. Even these limitations might be removed if the electorate so wish, as has been discussed recently.
Our Middle Eastern and African allies have much to learn along these lines. The Prophet guided us about choosing leaders in one of his well-known Hadith, that we may paraphrase as, the leader who WANTS to be leader or CAMPAIGNS to be leader, or INSTALLS himself to be leader (Ghaddafi? Mubarak? the entire Saud oligarchy?) may not be best.
The best leadership would result from consensus and acclamation, where possible. Interestingly, it seems that Barack Obama most closely meets this standard, at least as far as the western democratic mechanisms have gone, although a truly Islamic democracy would have mechanisms and procedures different from the western ones, as we Muslims have now to work out with due diligence.
Nevertheless, the principles are very similar. As Thomas Jefferson put it so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence of the first real participatory democracy in history (after the Greek city-states):
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… All experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed… But when a long train of abuses and usurpations… evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
Are there Muslims who live under such malevolent despotism in the modern day? And is it not their bounden duty to throw off such abuses of their unalienable rights? And Allah knows best.