Power, piety and a rally cry for democracy — I

The usual voices claim that either military rule or politicised religion offer more hope than this corruptocracy.


Maajid Nawaz September 30, 2010

Pakistan is a country suffering from every possible angle. In this current climate of despair, the usual voices can be heard claiming that either military rule or politicised religion offer more hope than this failed corruptocracy. When compared to politicians’ incompetence, it is true that both army discipline and religious piety or relief efforts can hold more mass appeal. In their own ways, these two options of power or piety bypass democratic pathways to solving problems; so who needs democracy?

The logic here is understandable, of course, but unjustifiable. And despite its obvious allure it is fatally flawed. Do nations progress due to the religiosity of their people and the piety of their rulers? Or even, is military rule the best way to create good governance? The answer is a resounding ‘no’. The fact is that public desire for more power or more piety usually leads to the same thing in the end, totalitarianism. Only fear of accountability makes good governance. In functioning societies, and I think we can agree that Pakistan today is not one, people hold leaders to account by a consensus upon which they agree to be ruled. If that consensus breaks, the people elect different leaders. This adversarial relationship between people and their leaders generates a culture where the government fears and serves its people.

People do not serve the government. When functioning like this, recent history bears witness to the fact that some phenomenally small islands with no demographic base or natural resources to speak of, like the United Kingdom, can become world powers. This was obviously not achieved by some abstract notion of piety in the leader’s conduct, or by pretences to religiosity by the nation. In times of crisis, such stark realities serve as a reminder to those who call for more power to be handed over to the state through militarisation, or demand more religiosity through Islamisation.

We must think. Why is it that some of the world’s most organised societies are not militarised? Why is it that some of the world’s least corrupt societies are not religious? Why is it that societies with the best welfare provisions on earth today are also very individualistic, run by selfish leaders? To the average Pakistani ear, these sentences would seem like paradoxes. They are facts. The answer lies in knowing that the only thing that keeps today’s politicians straight is fear of public and private accountability. Without this, no amount of power or piety can make a contemporary nation progress. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Piety, though a well-meaning trait, is by definition capricious and contested. In realpolitik, piety provides no objective standard by which to hold others to account.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 1st, 2010.

COMMENTS (4)

Hammad Talaat | 11 years ago | Reply I have to agree on the point that 'Only fear of accountability makes good governance'. But it has already taken us more than sixty years to unsuccessfully understand that who would make sure that the leaders are accountable to whom. What I think is that, the perceptions of the masses must be changed. And here is where the role of media comes in. Media needs a very desperate transformation from self-centered journalism to social-welfare journalism. They need to create the sense of accountability within the individuals. Telling them why to stop corruption or bribery and telling them about the ultimate consequences. Telling them what goes around comes around. I am not talking about the ideal Utopia. But believe me what I suggest is possible. Historically no civilization has ever experienced it's optimum without correcting the individuals. We must change from the roots, instead of just polishing the facet.
Sadia Hussain | 11 years ago | Reply Some very valid arguments, radicalism is linked to societal intolerance. We have to undo the narratives that have been imposed upon us. Pakistan cannot progress unless it transforms into a liberal progressive state.
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