Ideas & Philosophy — 22 July 2011
How should a society deal with political corruption?

Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp of “law-breaking on an industrial scale“. Many have agreed with Brown, but questioned why he maintained his intimate relationship with Murdoch and his court. His predecessor Tony Blair and successor David Cameron enjoyed arguably closer relationships with the same people, and all three have been uncomfortably close to big business in general. Indeed, Cameron’s publication of his meetings with media and others makes for interesting reading revealing, as they do, his close relationships with media and business.

This scandal is one of many in the past few years to hit the UK. The relationship of politicians with the financial sector [leading to light-touch regulation], MP’s expenses, cash for honors [the accusation that the wealthy could secure a seat in the legislative parliament through political donations] and others have all shaken public confidence in Britain.

Things are no better in the Muslim world, where people look for an alternative to corrupt dictatorships [Mubarak’s wealth has been argued to be as much as $70 billion] and corrupt democracies [Pakistan is ruled by the man known as ‘Mr Ten Percent’].

Dictatorships are unaccountable – so it is unsurprising that nepotism and corruption are rife. Democracies, however, institutionalize corruption with a lethal mix of political power and money. The political party system historically represented powerful vested interest groups in society. Party finance, lobbying government are often little more than bribery with sanitized names.

Moreover, capitalist societies are those in which wealth and power determine the policies, the laws and even the values that people live by, through their control of a powerful media. Today’s globalised world is dominated by the powerful Murdochs, Soroses, Ashcrofts, Mitals and Deripaskas – and it is hardly surprising that these names have been reported in the context of political scandal.

So, how can a society prevent and address the potential corruption of political power. People in Britain will wrestle with this dilemma, as a judicial inquiry has been launched to investigate the matter. But confidence cannot be high that the conundrum will be solved – not when one realizes how little changed after the previously mentioned political and financial crises.

Islam addresses this problem in many ways, working to both prevent and curtail political corruption. There are fixed systems to account government that we will explore. Society is also built in a way that does not abolish the instinct to seek wealth, but moderates it, whilst keeping a strict check on how that wealth influences politics and politicians. The media, scholars, jurists, political parties and individuals are encouraged to maintain their distance from the ruling class so that they can ‘speak the word of truth’ to authority. We hope to explore some of these features in greater details

 

Society’s collective conscience – All societies posses what can be called a collective conscience. Whilst Britain was collectively shocked by the media’s phone hacking of a murder victim, it collectively tolerated and accepted an incestuous relationship between politicians and the media.

In an Islamic society the most central value underpinning society should be ‘God consciousness or Taqwa. This is a matter that should pervade public opinion in such a way as to remind people of their purpose in life – to worship and please their Creator – and that there is no action whether personal or political that will go unaccounted.

There are many reminders in the Islamic texts, as well as in history, that act as reminders to those in authority to remain conscious of God and ultimate reckoning when exercising power. If these reminders become common currency in education, the media and public discourse in general, it makes disregarding of them by those in authority that much harder.

 

Ruling contract of the Caliph [Khaleefah] – In Islam, the Caliph rules according to a contract. Violation of the terms of that contract means that his legitimacy as a ruler is lost.

In respect of the issue of political corruption, there are two mandatory contractual conditions that have to be met in order to take office; and which would lead to his removal from office if they occurred after he had been elected.

The first condition is that he must be characterized with ‘adl – meaning that he must have integrity. There is a well-understood standard defined by Shariah that Islamic scholars have addressed – largely relating to giving testimony. Suffice to say that the criminal and fraudulent activities of many rulers in the Muslim world – like Zardari or Mubarak – would disqualify them from holding office, even at a ministerial or local government level.

The second condition is that he must be ‘free’ – meaning he cannot be beholden to any external obligations that would limit his ability to act in the public interest according to the Islamic law. Any clear evidence of such external obligation – whether to a political party or vested interest group – or indeed anything limiting his liberty in a personal capacity – would contradict the terms of his ruling contract.

Some may argue that the burden of proof according to the Shariah is very high, in order to protect the innocent. This is true.

But the very fact the Shariah law enshrines these things as contractual conditions means that they become matters that fall under public scrutiny.

Questions can and must be asked related to such matters, should suspicions fall into the public domain. And if such questions were satisfactorily answered, or investigations by the judiciary proved the suspicions were unfounded, the Caliph or other members of government continue in office. However, society could be satisfied that the executive is held to account on such matters and that, following scrutiny, its integrity was secure.

 

Judicial scrutiny – In Britain politicians who are exposed as committing crimes are subject to the process of the law. The same applies in Islamic societies – but more so, since the Caliph, unlike the head of state in Britain, is NOT above the law; and there is no parliamentary protection for those who slander or lie about others.

However, in the UK there is no fixed reliable process that can remove a sitting prime minister if he abuses privilege except if he loses a parliamentary vote of confidence – and even then the constitutional position is that it is the monarch who decides who is prime minister.

Islam has a branch of the judiciary the sole purpose of which is to address all levels of the state and government – from the ruling class to ordinary officials. This is called the Mahkamut al Madhalim or the Court for Unjust Acts. This court has the most senior judges in the land appointed to rule in disputes between the people and any State official or employee. It also has the power to follow lines of inquiry that deems worthy of investigation. Once a judge has begun an investigation, that judge cannot be removed from office until the investigation is complete.

Questions raised about dishonesty, corruption, abuse of privilege, relationships with external bodies that may compromise the ruler’s ability to rule freely and independently – as well as matters that impact on any other condition of ruling – can be followed up by the judges in this court.

Matters relating to corrupt acts of any officials must be investigated, with no distinction being made between officials and employees of different ranks. This includes looking into complaints about the police.

A ruling made against the government is binding, even to the point that they have the power to dismiss the ruler from office.

 

People’s assembly – In Islam, political authority belongs to the citizens. It is they who chose their ruler, whose authority to rule is on their behalf. It is their duty to account the ruler – even outside of the judicial process mentioned above.

Historically, this was done through the people of influence in society. In a tribal society this might be the tribal leaders.

This is institutionalized in a modern context in the form of elected assemblies. These can be regional to scrutinize, account and be consulted by the local governor; or central to fulfill the same function.

 

Political parties – Islam encourages political parties to be active in the political arena, under the terms of its Islamic constitution. Political parties in an Islamic system are not ruling parties. They can stand for election in the peoples’ assemblies or they can be active outside of this.

They have a crucial role mandated by Islam in the context of our discussion. That is to account the rule – what is termed ‘amr bil maaroof wa nahi anil munkar [enjoining good and forbidding evil].

They are an essential force to keep rulers in check, without becoming part of the ruling faction – as is the case in the Western democratic system and in the Communist system.

 

Citizens, Scholars and the Media – There is a collective duty on all citizens, which falls under the Islamic duty of amr bil maaroof wa nahi anil munkar [enjoining good and forbidding evil].

Any citizen can exercise this duty, if capable.

However, historically the scholars of Islamic jurisprudence accounted government – sometimes paying for it with their liberty or the lives.

Their knowledge of the law, their independence from the state, their sense of responsibility, and leading role in protecting society’s collective conscience – all of these meant that they excelled in holding political power to account.

A culture existed whereby their integrity came under question if they became part of the governing class, or if they fraternized too closely with it.

Similarly, an independent media form part of society’s mechanism to question, scrutinize and criticize government policy and politicians.

The media is not formally regulated but is subject to judicial process. Individual complaints of injury by the media against them are ruled upon in the general courts, as would be any civil case between two parties. The two parties are the complainant and the individual who they accuse of defamation – not the whole corporation.

Moreover, the media’s investigative role is such that if they evidence of corruption were uncovered or allegation made, the evidence should be presented to the court first rather than launched as means of an attack.

Furthermore, media questioning and scrutinizing the executive is right and proper, but media attacks on the government cross a red line.

This is an altogether healthier relationship. Accountability, scrutiny and independence are preserved, but political blackmail and malicious accusations are minimized.

 

Conclusion – All too often Western systems actually cause problems in society – whether the democratic system encouraging relationships between politicians, business and the media, or whether free markets encouraging law breaking, gossip or slander in trying to boost sales – and then think of regulatory mechanisms to mitigate these problems. This has been what we have seen in the cases of political and financial corruption of the past few years.

Islam, by contrast, actually has many facets in its philosophy and its practice that work to minimize political corruption – as well as mechanisms to deal with it if it ever did become manifest. In this way the system commands far more confidence than one which forever seems to be catching up with its own weaknesses.

Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. Other Articles by this Author can be found here

 

 

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