Reform is the Best Option
Society’s best option is to undergo change and adapt to its ever-changing needs on an ongoing basis. In a good number of countries, people have come up with mechanisms to measure the pulse of society and come up with the appropriate responses. It is as if what the people are saying to each other casually on the street and in private provides a true indication of what is supposed to be taking place.
This task is carried out in the developed world by think tanks and research centres, which give recommendations and advice to decision makers. The studies provided by these institutions go into impressive detail, providing in-depth statistical analysis and graphic representations of the opinions, needs and aspirations of people in society, to ensure that policy reflects the people’s concerns and can respond to changing social needs. The pulse of the street is of paramount concern. This is where the mood of the people is evident. Are they content? Do they feel stifled by their circumstances? Is there widespread dissatisfaction and a sense of alienation – conditions that can erupt in unexpected ways if decision-makers are unmindful or of society’s pulse or unresponsive to its needs.
Karl Marx had expected revolution to occur in the leading capitalist countries, since those were the wealthy countries possessing a large underclass. However, this is not what happened. Instead, the communist revolutions took place in poor agrarian countries like China and Tzarist Russia. The reason why it happened this way is that the leaders of Europe were quick to realise the danger communism posed and gave to the working classes many rights and entitlements, like paid vacation time. They also opened the doors to free expression, which allowed the people to articulate their grievances clearly and openly. In this way, those countries were able to bypass the revolutionary current that had been fomenting among the people.
Despotic regimes, to their own detriment, have a hard time determining the needs of the people and responding to the inevitable changes that take place in society. These regimes fear any kind of change, dreading the possibility of their own obsolescence. Ideally, the time at hand should be invested in, not through token gestures like price controls, loans and salary increases to temporarily pacify the people, or through arresting some minor officials involved in small-scale corruption. Rather, substantial changes are needed that will do away with the underlying causes of social unrest, beginning with loosening the grip on political power as well as the political and economic disenfranchisement of broad swathes of the population, and ending with guaranteeing the people’s political and civil rights, especially that of free speech.
Many people in the world are disillusioned with the regimes under which they live and have zero confidence in their governments’ ability to enact real reform, after so many years of disappointment. Nevertheless, to escape from the present political crisis, it is unavoidable for such counties, among them the Arab states, to move in the direction of greater openness and start making concessions regarding the people’s rights and the rule of law. There needs to be a rethinking of the relationship between the government and the governed, and not the old recipe of repressive crackdowns accompanied by repetitive slogans. The new basis of this relationship needs to be the will of the people, and this requires the assurance of their rights and human dignity.
In the early history of the Muslim Caliphate, the governor of Khorasan, al-Jarrah b. `Abd Allah, wrote to the caliph `Umar b. `Abd al-`Aziz, saying:
Peace be upon you. The people of Khorasan have become rebellious. They are fit for nothing but the lash and the sword. If the Commander of the Faithful sees fit to allow me to enact such a policy, I will do so.
`Umar b. `Abd al-`Azis responded as follows:
I have read your letter wherein you mention that the people of Khorasan have become rebellious and are fit for nothing but the lash and the sword, and wherein you seek my permission to enact such a policy. You have lied. What they are fit for is to receive justice and their rights. Enact that among them. And peace to you too.
What is needed, furthermore, is an acceptance of plurality and tolerance of dissention. These must be taken as a given, as constituting an essential part of a balanced social contract. People have differing needs and aspirations, which need to be brought into harmony in a way that guarantees equal rights to all as well as an equal opportunity for political participation. This social contract is entered into with the willing consent of the parties concerned. As Allah says: “...with their mutual consent.” [Surah al-Nisa’: 29] It also requires that the conditions and obligations which exist between the government and the governed are respected and honoured. Allah commands: “Fulfil your contractual agreements.” [Surah al-Ma’idah: 1] This not only ensures the freedom and rights of the people, but it ensures national security as well, in its most universal sense, which does not favour the security of one small sector of society (generally the rulers) at the expense of everyone else.
Sometimes “national security” is used as an excuse to undermine the security of whole ethnic groups, or to strip them of their liberty and rights, or deny them their sanctity as individuals.
At the opposite extreme, revolutionary zeal makes people disregard the importance of national security and stability, postponing these essential matters indefinitely, even at the expense of building a just society. We see this mindset today among the Arab people when they say things like: “Anyone who comes along is better than what we are living under now. We’ve seen enough despotism, humiliation, corruption, and poverty.”
Change, however it comes about, is perceived as a bold new opportunity with the potential to bring the people out of their present quagmire. In truth, the most important element it contains is the role that the people play in determining their own future.
Many people cast doubts upon the history of revolutions, especially those who benefit from the status quo or identify themselves with it. The same can be said for those who see the present situation as a perilous slope, but dread that what comes after it is an abyss. These people are victims of their own despair.
Others entertain doubts of a different kind, by weighing the pros and cons and coming to the conclusion that the short-term venting of frustrations is not worth the very dear price in lives, property, and social cohesion.
However, those who are unwilling to pay the price for change will have to pay the price for refusing to change. There is still a very good opportunity for serious reform, by dealing with people respectfully and with transparency. This is the best option whenever it is possible. There are plenty of good examples around the world to draw lessons from. Canada, for instance, is one of many countries that arrived at democracy without any revolution or war ever taking place.
The strategy of looking at long-term objectives and consequences will have us considering the realization of universal principles like human rights, freedom, justice, and the curbing of corruption in the spirit of reform. When these ideals can be achieved with the least pain and loss, then this is what accords with the teachings and spirit of Islam.
There are those who feel they are immune to change, arguing that their country has endured for decades just as it is. This logic is like that of an old man citing his advanced age as proof that he is immune to death.