Unjust Muslim rulers mask economic folly
By Hossein Askari
The global media almost never questions the religious credentials of politicians and rulers around the world. Reporters should ask all Muslim rulers a simple question. If you are a devout Muslim, how come you are oppressive, unjust and wealthy?
While I agree that a person's religion should be almost always a private matter between the person and his or her God, I think it is different when that person is head of state and professes a religious belief, when he touts it to garner votes or political support, and especially when he runs a country where there is no separation of religion and state. To be fair and upfront about my
interest in this, it is broadly the case in many Muslim countries in the Middle East and the religion in question is Islam.
To anyone who is familiar with the Islam of the Quran and of the life of the Prophet Mohammad, a devout Muslim is not simply a person who professes that there is only one God with Mohammad as his messenger, prays, fasts, gives alms, and goes to Mecca. These somewhat mechanical actions though important are eclipsed by the one thing that is at the foundation of the Islamic faith - justice. A devout Muslim must be just in all that he or she does and oppose injustice wherever it is.
Important signs of injustice include: oppression, unequal opportunities for individuals to develop and realize their dreams, highly skewed income and wealth distribution, opulence alongside poverty, and environmental degradation and resource depletion that compromise God's gift for future generations. In short, while upholding the unity of Allah's creation, a Muslim should do whatever it takes to promote social and economic justice.
What does this mean in practice? Islam is a rules-based religion. Many of these rules, such as equality before the law, must be institutionalized. Good institutions are at the core of a flourishing Muslim society. A Muslim must follow the rules, do what he or she can to make other Muslims to do the same, and if Muslims fail as individuals, then the state must step in to address the problem(s).
In a sense, the state (the ruler) has to be more responsible and rule-compliant than individual Muslims. Rulers must establish good and efficient institutions, especially the rule of law, efficient markets, sound contract and business laws and regulations, structures that impede corruption and discrimination, and encourage good business practices, etcetera. In turn, the state gains legitimacy in a Muslim country by upholding the laws and justice, while being just and following the rules itself. What does all this mean for Muslim rulers?
Rulers must not rule by force. They should have popular support and must be answerable to the community. And as we have said above, they must be "better" Muslims than the average Muslim in obeying and enforcing the rules of the religion in a country where there is not separation of religion and state. If a ruler is oppressive, then Muslims must confront him.
Rulers must live simply. They must not have opulent lifestyles and hoard wealth. They should live as the poorest member of society so that they feel what it is like to be deprived.
Rulers must develop economies that afford all members of society an equal opportunity to succeed and develop. This means equal access to a good education, healthcare, basic nutrition and job opportunities. This does not, however, mean equal incomes and of wealth. Allah did not choose to create all humans with equal abilities. So it is natural that incomes will be different.
But differences in income and wealth must not be large. The more fortunate must pay an income (khums) and a wealth (zakah) tax discretely to help the disadvantaged. And if there is still a wide gap in wealth or if there is poverty, individuals must do more; and if the opulence and poverty continue to co-exist, rulers must step in to correct the imbalance.
Thus a ruler must create the required conditions and institutions for individuals to develop and flourish and live by example the life of an exemplary Muslim.
Society and the state (rulers) must provide a dignified life for the disabled and others who cannot provide for themselves.
Rulers, including all of society, are agent-trustees of God on this earth. They must preserve the environment (God's gift to humans of all generations) and replace what depletable resources (such as oil) they use so that future generations enjoy the same. I don't mean replacing oil with oil, but oil underground is a part of society's capital stock; its depletion could be compensated by capital of other forms.
Now, you be the judge. Look across North Africa and the Middle East - all the way from Morocco through Afghanistan - and judge rulers by these simple indicators that no Muslim could deny are the basic teachings of Islam. Are these rulers: representative, fair, and just; are they providing equal opportunities for all, developing good institutions, living simply, eradicating poverty, and preserving the environment and compensating for depleted natural resources?
A more appropriate question might be, is there even one Muslim ruler in North Africa and the Middle East that satisfies these simple requirements?
The answer is an undeniable no. Every single one of these rulers is oppressive and unjust and enjoys opulence at the expense of society.
Why acknowledging this obvious fact is so important is that it is at the heart of understanding why these are failed societies with a great deal of exclusion and resentment, why foreigners are also a part of the problem, and why simple regime change (revolution) by itself will achieve little if anything. Let me provide a brief summary here.
In the past, foreigners as colonialists and neo-colonialists exploited many of these countries (oil over the past 100 or so years). More recently, about 40 to 50 years ago, foreigners recognized that it was more practical to support corrupt rulers, prop them up, and collaboratively exploit their countries. What foreigners profess - democracy and the rule of law - is not what they practice. This has kept unjust rulers in power.
Foreigners - their corporations, financial institutions and influential individuals - benefit, and corrupt unjust rulers enrich themselves, their families and cronies, all at the expense of societies in these countries. And when rulers are overthrown and another ruler assumes power, he (and his cronies) very quickly repeats what the previous ruler did with foreign support. Quite an impregnable chain!
Besides garnering foreign support, oppressive and corrupt rulers have simultaneously also exploited all historic divisions - ethnic, religious, sectarian, tribal - to garner domestic backing. Today, the favored historic dispute is sectarian - namely the Sunni-Shia split. The flames are everywhere. Iraq, formerly under the Sunni Saddam Hussein, is now under a Shia government. Saddam portrayed the Western efforts to overthrow him as a sectarian struggle, as if he were a devout Sunni Muslim leader fighting the enemies of Islam - and now Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki excludes Sunnis from government because the Sunnis would come to power and repeat their exclusionary and brutal policies against Shia.
But this Sunni-Shia split is no longer about who should succeed the Prophet Mohammad (something that happened nearly 1,400 years ago). Instead it is about power and control over economic resources. Saddam Hussein was no devout Sunni Muslim. He used this historic dispute to create a division of us against them. If they come to power they will deprive us of resources. So we have to exclude and deprive them.
This has played out in Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and elsewhere. Conflicts, no matter what their diverse origins, evolve into a conflict over power and control over resources. Rulers exploit divisions for support and self-enrichment.
Revolutions and regime change, no matter where - Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and still to come in other countries of the region - will achieve little unless they are accompanied by institutional development and a reversal of the detrimental role of foreigners.
For meaningful change and turnaround, the Middle East needs just rulers and governments who develop good institutions. Foreigners should stop their exploitation and practice what they profess. Even then, the process will take time. It will be in fits and starts. But it is time to acknowledge the fundamental problems and start down the process of building just societies.
Hossein Askari is Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University. He formerly served on the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund. His numerous publications include Conflicts and Wars: Their Fallout and Prevention (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). This article draws on work for his two most recent books, available later this year: Collaborative Colonialism: The Political Economy of Oil in the Persian Gulf (Palgrave Macmillan, to be published September 19, 2013) and Conflicts in the Persian Gulf: Origins and Evolution (Palgrave Macmillan, to be published November 7, 2013).
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