On leadership and democracy


“DEMOCRACY” popularized by the West is NOT the democracy established by Rasulullah (s.a.w.) in his time. After his demise, the monarchists (now called Shi’ite Muslims) insisted that subsequent Amirs should come from the blood line of the Prophet himself. As best we know, the Prophet (s.a.w.) did not sanction this royal system of choosing leaders, rather he nominated Abu Bakr and left the decision open to CONSENSUS of the Companions (r.a.).

The Rightly Guided Caliphs (r.a.) were therefore chosen by a process of consensus among all the active adult Muslims of sound mind. This is the prototype for Islamic democracy.

The difficulty we have applying this model today is the huge world population, including huge number of Muslims. “Consensus” could obviously not be practiced by a group of Muslims larger than live in one particular community. Therefore, representative voting as the westerners do it is our only practical alternative, and it is the system of democracy Muslims practice nowadays.

Muslims who complain against the voting systems and campaigns of modern countries must suggest a better system (if there is one) that could still give the common people the authority to choose their own leaders. Only in this way can the rampant corruption of Muslim leaders who stay in power for decades be controlled.

The principle is easy to understand, that even if you have an election, if there is really only one possible outcome to the voting, you do not have a democracy. Democracy requires a real choice between leaders, and there is NO SUCH THING as a “one party democracy”, such as was claimed by GOLKAR in Indonesia for over thirty years and by UMNO in Malaysia for over 50 years.

And the corollary to this pseudo-democracy which has only one real party and only one real candidate who can win the election is that all those government functionaries who have essentially lifetime jobs can practice their corruption very easily, since there is no risk to them of their party being removed from office any time soon.

There are other prerequisites to a smoothly functioning democratic system. For example, education must be autonomous to the various regions taking part in the election. There cannot be federal centralization of curriculum and course design. Healthy local economies may then also provide school uniforms and books free-of-charge, as is done in some countries. Histories may take on local color, along with civics and economics.

But of course, the prerequisite for an autonomous educational system is an efficient system of collecting local taxes, since local schools are funded by the taxes paid by citizens on the property they own in the neighborhood. We can see the tremendous difficulty of Indonesia and Malaysia to establish a smoothly functioning democracy because their educational systems are not yet de-centralized. Tax money all goes to the center in Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta, not to the local authorities for application to local needs. Educational ministries at the center then attract incompetent politicians who are more stone-hopping power players than experts in educational design.

So although we can describe improvements needed to our Islamic democratic systems, we cannot actually implement these improvements until our economic system becomes truly and strongly Muslim and incompetent or uninformed ministries of education no longer try to dictate educational policy from the capital cities, where conditions and educational needs are very different than in the urban centers.

If we now consider the need for democratization of Islamic organizations in general, we see the same vulnerability to corruption where such elective systems are not in place. Among other things, votes must be freely and honestly solicited, and, to be completely Muslim in nature, those who seek power and position really should not be offered them. The key word in democratization of Islamic groups is ACCLAMATION. The leader is urged to take such a position by a clear majority of the other members of the group. He or she is thus selected “by acclamation”, which is the best possible result of the process of consensus mandated by al Qur’an.

Acclamation also implies that those who may have dissented in the beginning now agree to support the leader by acclamation. A secular democratic vote, on the other hand, and especially recently in the USA, leaves a permanent chasm between supporters of the winner and those who originally voted for the loser. The losing voters in a secular democratic election do not always feel obligation to support the winner who was not their own choice. And so the community becomes severely polarized, instead of working together.

In the case of consensus, the possibility of disloyalty to the leadership never arises, since he/she has been empowered by acclamation rather than by a majority vote. Nevertheless, where acclamation does not occur, the majority vote is still preferable to autocratic appointments from higher up or outside the Islamic organization.

Therefore, our highest procedure is to select our leaders by acclamation, whereas the next most preferable is to vote in the leaders who do not aggressively “run” for the office. This “running” or campaigning for the office is, according to Rasulullah (s.a.w), a disqualification of the individual involved.

The Venezuelan socialists have recently given a misleading title to their elective process. Their president, one Mr. Chavez, did not want to step down after serving his legal maximum term. So he caused to be approved by plebiscite something they are calling “right to rule” legislation. In other words, he claims the right to rule as long as he wishes. One of the arguments he used, which is heard even here in Malaysia, is that we must sometimes modify our political processes in such a way as to preserve stability and protect from anarchy.

This argument is often a sign of approaching tyranny. Another such sign would be the 90+ % election victories claimed by such tyrants as Mubarak in Egypt or Bachir in Sudan, or, formerly, Suharto in Indonesia. These so-called 90+ % victories are a sign of tyranny, rather than a healthy democracy. Presuming Islamization of our economics, autonomization of our educational systems, and insistence on real choices rather than “one-party democracies”, we may hope to reduce the corruption that so saps the life and vitality of the Muslim body-politic.

As we are encouraged to use our God-given reasoning powers to derive many principles of modern living from the Sunnah of our Prophet (s.a.w.), let us draw an inference from the principle that leaders should not display the actual ambition to lead. If this be true, then might we not also infer that leaders must relinquish their power equally gracefully? And if this be true, may we not observe that Malaysia is at the moment going through a phase in which no one wants to relinquish anything.

We might call it “finger-pointing” democracy. ‘You are the bad guy!” “No, YOU are the bad guy!” And so on. What a tragedy such behavior is, during a time when good leadership is desperately needed, when citizens all over the world are literally trembling in fear of recent events.

It must be said of George Bush that he was very graceful in transferring his power over to Barack Obama. Many other out-going American presidents have not done so well. It must also be said that Tun Mahathir gracefully stepped down from his position of power when it was appropriate for him to do so, although fascist leaders in other countries, such as Egypt, were completely confused by this simple act of relinquishment and good timing. Egyptians asked, “Why would anybody want to do that?” They thus betrayed their total lack of experience with democracy.

And so we may hope that Malaysian politicians will follow the example of George Bush, as well as their own former leader, and learn to step down without doing damage to others in the process. It is an old scenario. “If I go down, I will take you with me”. This attitude is more worthy of gangsters than political leaders. But then, many political leaders do seem more to resemble gangsters than anything else. And, sad to say, the Malaysians have not learned much in this regard.

We can only pray that the present circus of leadership will rapidly GROW UP, understand their responsibility to their community, and not repeat the abysmal chaos that followed President Suharto’s delayed retirement to the south of here. Or Hitler’s appalling legacy to his German nation at the end of World War II. For this is the example being followed at present, the example of “scorched earth” – as you retreat, do whatever damage you need to do to punish those who dare to yearn for different leadership.

And Allah protects us from the lovers of their own power.

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