by M. Bakri Musa
In the 19th Century, tiny Britain was able to humiliate the great Chinese Empire and subdue its masses by making opium readily available to them. It was also highly lucrative for the British, with the poor Chinese bearing the heavy burden. To be fair, Chinese leaders from the Emperor on down were fully aware of the dangers, but despite their valiant efforts they were unable to prevail against the British.
Today Muslims, Malays in particular, are being similarly narcotized, not by opium but by an equally potent agent: religion. Unlike the Chinese of yore who were victims of a malevolent foreign power, with Malays it is our leaders who are doing it to us, and with good intentions too. They want us all to end up in Heaven! Touching!
The Muslim masses today, like the Chinese of the 19th Century, were not unwilling victims. They are not to be blamed, just like we cannot blame a patient who is in great pain wanting a powerful painkiller. It may not cure the underlying disease but at least it relieves the suffering. Likewise when your daily existence is terribly painful — the fate of the vast majority of Muslims — you too need immediate relief. It would be cruel and inhumane to deny that.
The familiar official indices readily reveal the targic reality of daily existence of the Muslim ummah: high mortality and low literacy rates, pathetic per capita income, gross abuses of human rights, women deprived of their basic dignity, and oppressive governments. It is obvious to all, except the leaders. Visit the slums and squatters of Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan, and the anguished reality of unbelievable depravation will hit you hard even if you try to avoid it.
Muslim leaders should worry less about their followers ending up in Heaven and focus more on the monumental task at hand of lifting the masses out of their current living hell. It may be argued that if religion brings relief to their daily struggle, so be it. That is a delusion; the narcotizing effect of religion is even more destructive.
Hard Work of Leadership
Making sure that your citizens are fed, educated, and housed so they could have a reasonably decent life to pursue their dreams and realize their potential is no easy task. While there are well-established and proven principles out there, there is no simple solution or ready path for a particular society. Each has its own unique challenges; its leaders must carve their own distinctive path. That would demand, aside from the mandatory diligence, intelligence, and integrity, an even greater sense of humility on the part of leaders.
The problems and challenges are infinite in their manifestations, and great intelligence is required in recognizing and elucidating them. The humility is for the inevitable pitfalls and failures that would humble you and sap your confidence. Humility is also needed so you could learn from your failures and from others, including your adversaries.
These necessary leadership qualities do not come naturally, nor are they easily acquired. Consequently and far too often, the tendency is for incompetent leaders to resort to simplistic solutions or endlessly mouthing meaningless slogans: “Bring back the Caliph!” “Implement the Sharia!” “Establish an Islamic state!”
The masses pick their cue from the leaders. No surprise then that they are only too willing to senselessly “martyring” themselves. Working hard to acquire the necessary skills to make themselves useful to society is much more mundane but necessary undertaking. Nor does it grab the headlines.
The American scholar Abdullahi Naim wisely observed that the experience of the vast majority of Muslims across the world today is about “struggles for constitutionalism and human rights, economic development, and social justice, not about the quest for Islamic states to enforce sharia.” Naim’s words should be emblazoned all over our masjids, ministries, and country.
First Tie Your Camel
Allah will not change the fate of a people unless they first change themselves, goes the wisdom of the Quran. That in turn takes leadership. Islam recognizes the supreme importance of leaders. At Friday and other congregational prayers, it is customary for the Imam to lead the dua (supplication) seeking Allah to provide wisdom and health to the Sultans and leaders so they could lead their people along the path of righteousness.
Our culture too recognizes the importance of leadership, hence the observation: Endah negri kerana penghulu (Great leaders, great society!). It is not enough for us to pray that our leaders would lead us along the straight path. We must also do our part and exercise due diligence in choosing our leaders and then attentively monitor their performances.
As per the wisdom of our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., first tie your camel securely, then pray to Allah that it does not escape. To put that in current political perspective, we must first choose our leaders wisely, meaning, scrutinize them thoroughly before casting our votes, then pray to Allah that we get leaders with integrity and competence. Praying alone will not secure your camel, or guarantee you honest leaders. Nor should we assume the one who could lead us in prayers is the one most competent to lead the nation.
Even a determined and wise Chinese Emperor could not withstand the narcotizing power of opium. Religion is even more so. Given a leadership woefully lacking in integrity and competence, religion can have a stranglehold more tenacious than the most potent opiate.
To Malays today, religion is less a salve for the soul and more a narcotic to make us escape the world and perversely, as God is everywhere in this wonderful universe, away from Him.