As much as we welcome the recent revolutions in parts of the Arab world, we need to acknowledge an important fact: Revolutions are no fun. Although they are necessary at times in order to correct rampant tyranny and corruption, it’s better not to ever have to resort to them. Revolutions cost lives, bog down the economy, and typically it takes several years of instability and even violence after the end of a revolution before its objectives are somewhat achieved.
How can countries avoid this painful, albeit sometimes necessary, kinetic? How could Arabs in particular have avoided having to resort to rebellion? The key to the answer may lie in this excerpt from a historically monumental inauguration speech by Abu Bakr al Siddeeq, the most prominent companion of prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him the – and the first Muslim khalifa:
“…Oh people! I have been given rulership over you even though I am not the most pious among you. Whenever I’m right, support me, and when I err, correct me. Obey me as long as I obey Allah in the way I rule you, so if I disobey Him, I have no right to your obedience…”
A few decades later, another khalifa, Omar ibn Abd-el-Azeez, echoed a similar sentiment in his inauguration speech:
…”Whoever would like to be my company shall adhere to five things or else not come near me: To report the needs of those who need my help, to support me in doing good however they can, to guide me with good advice, to never backbite people in my presence, and to not interfere with that which is not their business” … ” Oh people! Whoever obeys Allaah has the right to be obeyed, so if they disobey Allaah, they lose the right to be obeyed. Follow me as long as I obey Allaah in the way I rule, and if I disobey Him then I have no right to your obedience…”
Abu Bakr and Omar ibn Abd-el-Azeez thereby stated over a millennium ago that rulership is not the job of rulers alone. They made it very clear that it is the responsibility of every citizen to be a source of feedback for the ruler. To them, a public with a sense of civic duty was instrumental in their ability to rule fairly. They went further by making their right to be obeyed as rulers a conditional one, not an absolute one.
Had Arabs remained cognizant of this principle, had they defended their responsibility to speak their minds and provide guidance to rulers, perhaps they wouldn’t have found themselves having to topple governments by revolting. Unfortunately, Arabs have been trained to think that they have no say in whatever their governments decide. They can complain about their governments to people they trust (and complain they do) but they can never take part and assume responsibility in public or political affairs. New governments in Arab countries would quickly capitalize on this attitude and grow outrageously totalitarian and oppressive with time. This does not only include current governments but past ones as well for the last several centuries.
Thankfully, Arabs in “liberated” countries like Egypt and Tunisia have learned now to take the initiative of civic engagement. Whether they will sustain and cherish this newfound attitude for times to come is to be seen. My hope is that it spreads to all Arab countries and that governments learn to accept and embrace it before more revolutions take place.
Now, there’s a lesson here for all peoples to learn, especially those of us who are blessed to live in freedom of expression and under the rule of law. The lesson is, in my opinion, that civic engagement is not a luxury, but an absolute obligation upon all of us which, if not taken seriously, will surely lead to more corruption and more oppression.
Growing up in the Middle East, I remember the sittings in which the “grown ups” would talk about government and politics. I remember the constant complaining, the negativity, and the lack of any hint at taking action. At the same time, I remember the outlandish conspiracy theories that turn governments into omnipresent, omnipotent beings that could make no mistakes except on purpose, that see and hear everyone and everything at all times. Not once have I heard anyone suggest doing anything about it. It’s true that Arabs have been taught to avoid taking initiative by their brutal regimes, but I think it’s a vicious cycle. I think governments will not become corrupt unless the populace allows them to become so.
We here in America have the chance now to never let our government and our wealthy elites do what Arab governments and their wealthy drones have done to their peoples. Our job is simple: to always be engaged and always have a voice. We have the obligation to make it known to our elected officials that we will speak out against them if they go astray. It’s a right we must hold on to with all our might, lest we want to see our country turn into another Syria.