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The Politics of Austerity; How modern politicians could learn from Imam Ali (as)

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How modern politicians could learn a thing or two about austerity and leadership from Imam Ali (as)

In 2009, David Cameron promised an  “Age  of  Austerity”  to  combat the  ill-effects  of  the  worst  financial crisis the world has ever seen. In  practice,  this  meant  biting  cuts  to government  spending  –  even  in  essential areas such as healthcare, education and  welfare  benefits  –  to  reduce  the budget  deficit.  These  policies  have been implemented not only in Britain, but in the majority of developed countries  to  varying  degrees.  What  this has meant, in effect, is that the poorest members of society are compelled to  pay  off  the  debts  incurred  by  the wealthiest  –  the  bankers  and  political elites  who  caused  this  crisis  through a  combination  of  reckless  greed,  systemic corruption and gross negligence. But   while   our   political   elites   are enthusiastically    imposing    austerity on  everyone  else,  they  are  less  keen to practise what they preach.

At  a  time  when  many  families   in   Britain   must   now choose    between    keeping their houses warm and being able to buy food, the British government  has  decided  to limit  the  increase  in  welfare benefits  to  1%  per  annum.

Meanwhile,  a  recent  survey conducted   in   Westminster by  the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has shown that MPs feel they are entitled to – on average – a 32% pay rise, taking their salaries up to £86,250 a year. This evokes memories of the expenses scandal in 2009, when it emerged that politicians had been manipulating the system and using taxpayers’ money to fraudulently  obtain  –  in  some  cases –  hundreds  of  thousands  of  pounds while simultaneously demonising those who falsely claimed housing and other benefits.

A   culture   of   entitlement   pervades Westminster,  with  some  members  of parliament  believing  that  the  British people  owe  them  a  debt  of  gratitude for their public service. The Tory MP, Andrew  Bridgen,  told  BBC  Radio  4: ‘Most of my colleagues on the government benches took a large pay cut to be  an  MP,  and  I  think  there’s  a  real danger,  if  you  need  good  people,  you need the right people, there’s a lot of exclusion… A man or a woman who’s very  capable,  doing  very  well  in  their profession, whatever that may be, with a  family,  are  they  going  to  be  willingto  take  that  pay  cut,  look  their  children in the eye when it’s Christmas say you can’t have what you normally have because Mummy or Daddy wants to be an MP.’ This shows how utterly out of touch  many  politicians  are  with  ordinary people. Never mind the fact that some families could not even afford to heat  their  homes  this  Christmas  (let alone  ‘have  what  they  normally  have’for Christmas), but the average salary in the UK is £26,500 while your average MP earns £65,738. How can MPs possibly  justify  that  salary  when  the last  decade  has  seen  them  embezzle public funds, lead us into an unpopular and illegal war, and preside over the worst financial crisis in human history?

It  is  a  sad  statement  of the  materialistic  world view  that  prevails  in  our democracies  that  public  service  has been   reduced   to   a   career   choice, whose  only  tangible  value  is  the  pay packet to which it is attached. The primary motive of a politician should not be  to  advance  his  or  even  his  party’s interests;  it  should  be  to  serve  the people – in particular the weak, needy and  vulnerable.  But  more  than  the motivations  of  individual  politicians; materialistic attitudes have penetrated our  very  understanding  of  what  government  is  for.  Ever  since  the  rise  of neo-liberalism in the late 1970s, government has become increasingly   focused   on   ensuring economic growth rather than the  well-being  of  a  nation’s citizens.  That  is  why  we  can squeeze   the   (economically unproductive)    poor while protecting  the  (economically productive) wealthy. But there are alternative politics of austerity – those of personal  austerity  (zuhd).  In  the  Islamic tradition,  a  ruler  should  demonstrate not just an aptitude for politics, but a commitment to the personal values of morality and moderation.

While today the  mere  mention  of  “morality”  is anathema  to  politicians,  who  insist  it is the esoteric preserve of “moral philosophers” and has no place in governance, the essence of Islamic politics is morality  –  the  creation  of  a  just  and virtuous  society  for  all.  But this  cannot happen unless the rulers embody these  values themselves;  a  maxim  of Imam Ali (a)  says that people resemble their  rulers  more  than  they  do  their own  fathers,  and  the  Qur’an  admonishes the Children of Israel: ‘Will you bid  others  to  piety  and  forget  your-selves…?’ (2:44).True  leadership  stems  not  from  legal formality,  as  it  is  so  often  conceived in modern societies where politics has long  been  divorced  from  virtue,  but through setting an example for others to aspire to. And how is it possible to lead people if you do not live amongst them and – more importantly – live like them?  For  a  practical  role-model  of this style of leadership, we need look no further than Imam Ali (a) . While our political  leaders  insist  on  living  like the wealthiest members of our society, he lived, dressed and ate like the poorest; Imam Ali (a)  would distribute meat and bread to the poor, but when one of  his  companions  visited  his  home he  was  amazed  to  find  the  ruler  of the Muslims eating stale barley bread.

While  our  political  leaders  feel  entitled  to  claim  personal  expenses  from the  public  purse,  Imam  Ali (a)   treated the  treasury  as  a  sacred  trust;  he would ensure that the candle he used for conducting state affairs was never used  for  his  own  personal  affairs.  In spite  of  whatever  personal  wealth  he might  have  owned,  he  lived  amongst his people and he lived like the poorest of them. In this way, Imam Ali (a)  did not only rule justly and effectively, but also  set  a  personal  example  to  those over whom he presided – not demanding from them anything he did not first demand from himself.

Unfortunately,  so  long  as  truth  and virtue  are  excluded  from  legitimate political discourse, and so long as we continue  to  prioritise  material  interests, we will never find such qualities in our political leaders. It is up to us to change that – we must not only expect more from our leaders, but also more from ourselves. No one else is going to fix the world on our behalf. Unless we actively  campaign  for  change,  beyond simply ticking a ballot once every few years, we won’t see any. As citizens of a  democracy  we  are  accountable  for the decisions of our government (just as   our   government   is   accountable to  us)  and,  as  Muslims,  we  are  duty-bound before God to strive for a bet-ter  world  through  enjoining  the  good and forbidding the evil.

Perhaps, in an age marked by increasing apathy and disenchantment  with  politics,  we  can restore the ideal of a virtuous government. And perhaps, at a time of much public disgust at the excesses of politicians  and  bankers,  some  austerity  is exactly what we need.

While our political leaders feel entitled to claim personal expenses from the public purse, Imam Ali (a)   treated  the  treasury  as  a  sacred  trust;  he would  ensure  that  the  candle  he  used  for  conducting state affairs was never used for his own personal affairs.

Written by Alexander Khaleeli

This article was originally published in Islam Today magazine.

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