by Imran Khan
“Nations die when they can no longer distinguish between right and wrong,” said Maulana Rumi. Being the great mystic, poet and philosopher that he was, Rumi drew inspiration from the Holy Quran, God’s Book of guidance, in which He advises humankind to condemn that which is wrong and uphold that which is right. The Quran makes numerous references to nations that were destroyed when they lost the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. This ability is so very important that one of the Surahs in the Quran is called ‘Al Furqan’ – The Criterion.
Inspired by the Messenger’s (PBUH) example, the foundations of Muslim civilization were based on an extraordinarily high value system. The four rightly-guided caliphs who came immediately after the Messenger (PBUH) maintained these high moral and ethical standards and elevated the value system of the entire Muslim nation. It is for this reason that the Khulafa-e-Rashida period is regarded as the Golden Age of Islam. Future Islamic leadership rarely measured up to this ideal, yet for several centuries Muslim societies had a higher value system than in today’s world. Whenever the ruling elite’s value system collapses decay inevitably sets in.
Sadly, Pakistan is staring at an uncertain future because it has lost its moral compass despite the high moral standards set by the Father of the Nation. With each passing decade the country has meekly accepted a lower, indeed baser, set of values. 1985 was a watershed year for that is when our political leadership went on a looting spree. Societal values plummeted to the depths. Ordinary corruption descended to plunder and became accepted as the norm. The ruling elite — politicians, judges, generals and bureaucrats, even journalists — began selling its soul, some for a song. “Fish rots from the head,” say our great friends the Chinese, from whom we have learned little. With each passing year corruption permeated every strata of society, destroying its moral fabric. When criminality pays and people lose the ability to realize that they are being corrupt, crime multiplies. Thus the greatest damage done to Pakistan was that crooks became accepted in society because they were not really seen to have done anything wrong. Drug smugglers are feted on release, looters received repeatedly as rulers. Here, money talks. Money has come to mean acceptability (not respectability). Hence few question where or how people have got their wealth, as long as they have got it. The corrupt can consequently buy acceptability, elections and high office.
The nadir came with the Mehran Bank scandal, which cost the country’s beleaguered taxpayer Rs 5 billion. (Why then should people pay taxes for the inefficiency and corruption of government?). That our political Who’s Who was involved in this great bank robbery epitomizes how low our values have fallen. Yet they are still able not only to contest elections but also be regarded as pillars of society, as do those who doled out the money of depositors to them. No one asks whether it is part of the job description of the army chief to dish out money to our politicians of easy virtue to influence, meaning subvert, the political process. Imagine if this had happened in a Western country, what an uproar it would have caused. All those involved would have been finished, long since consigned to history’s trash heap.
Four governments were dismissed on corruption charges yet every time the same corrupt pack was allowed to contest elections and return to the assemblies to resume their plunder and mis-governance. Politics, not business, became the best of all businesses. Ill-gotten money was invested in elections. After getting elected the ‘investment’ was first ‘recovered’ then huge ‘profits’ made through more plunder. Transparency International had Pakistan as the world’s second most corrupt country in the late Nineties. Since international investors took this view seriously foreign investment began to dry up. It is logical that when a country’s debt increases its poverty should decrease provided the loans are applied judiciously. Pakistan scored yet another first in the Hall of Ignominy when abject poverty and debt both increased during the Decade of Plunder. Nothing manifests the extent to which our moral and ethical standards had fallen than the elections of our two ex-PMs as heads of their respective parties. This, despite knowing that one is a convict and the other an absconder, and both face a plethora of corruption charges. Even more depressing are those of our intellectuals, columnists, and senior journalists — even liberals — who are demanding that these two icons of corruption be allowed to contest elections on grounds that the masses will conduct their accountability through their vote. They know full well that the poor masses are in no position to hold anyone accountable, being trapped in the feudal system which is armed with weapons like the thana, kutchery and patwari that keep the weak and the voiceless in line through fear of victimization. And so the depressing, degrading syndrome continues with the same crooks getting elected repeatedly.
People welcomed General Musharraf hoping that he was the messiah who would clean the system up, put all political crooks behind bars without selectivity and allow genuine democracy (with the required institutional checks) to flourish. Depressingly his government has taken the well-trodden path and in the name of ‘realism’ has enlisted some of the mega-corrupt electable politicians on its side. Like others of their ilk before them, this lot too has selected crooks because crooks aren’t restricted by principles or morality and are therefore pliable and will do their bidding. Resultantly the future of the nation has constantly been jeopardized for short-term gains. Besides, the government has ended up doing Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto a huge favor by making corruption a non-issue. How can any reform programme work if these role models of dishonesty again dominate the assemblies?
The government would have us believe that what it is doing is ‘realistic’, that talk of clean-up is idealistic because ‘unfortunately’ only the corrupt are electable. Devoid of ethics this brand of ‘realism’ is nothing more then simple expediency. Such fake realism will destroy the value system of our nation further and will take us closer towards Rumi’s verdict. With the same corrupt politicians doing ‘business as usual’ the system of governance will deteriorate even more, negating whatever good work has been done in the last three years, which in turn will wipe out any chances of investment in the future. Without investment the army of unemployed will grow to the point where a social upheaval becomes inevitable. Without investment the economy will shrink further, government’s revenues won’t rise, leading to more indirect taxation, greater inflation, more poverty and even more corruption by the salaried classes. This fake realism holds a depressing and bleak future.
Reality cries out for idealism – the sort of idealism that existed in 1947 that makes a nation believe in itself and feel that it can overcome all odds to make the impossible achievable. It happens in one glorious moment when a nation comes together in a common vision, with faith in higher ideals. In order to do so we need a leadership that sets high moral and ethical standards, and no matter what the circumstances, it never, but never, compromises with criminals and crooks. We will never have work ethics unless we ensure with total determination that crime doesn’t pay. Our institutional checks should be such that never again are crooks able to get close to any leadership role. Only then can we fight the cancer of corruption.
Now that we know how nations die, it is imperative to address the questions: ‘How do nations rise?’ The starting point, indeed the fulcrum of an ascendant nation, particularly a Muslim nation, is the establishment of an independent, powerful and credible judiciary. Without this it is impossible to establish an egalitarian state in which the law applies equally to all. Only if leadership becomes subservient to the law will the law be respected. Lee Kwan Yew’s economic miracle in Singapore rested on a credible judiciary and a high value system, which enabled the island to have the cleanest government in Asia. Lee saw no danger in an independent judiciary because he had complete confidence in his own financial and intellectual integrity. He could thus afford a credible justice system, unlike our corrupt rulers. After 35 years of Lee’s leadership Singapore’s per capita income rose from $450 to $22,000. In a decade of corrupt leadership Pakistan’s poverty and debt have trebled. This stark contrast confirms Maulana Rumi’s thought that bereft of morality, nations fall.