The decline of culture or habits assuming the force of history

Crescent International

Dhu al-Qa'dah 12, 1416 1996-04-01

South-East Asia

by Crescent International (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 25, No. 2, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1416)

THE following vignette is not apocryphal. It actually happened.

When a former senior bureaucrat in Pakistan was waylaid recently (this being the second time that this misfortune was befalling him and his family) his daughter-in-law who was sitting with him in his BMW asked one of the dacoits who had seized them as to why he had taken to this profession. The answer was along the following lines: if everyone else was involved in looting the country what was wrong with him and his colleagues following the same example?

Then the dacoit asked the former senior civil servant a question in return. Pointing his pistol at the former bureaucrat’s head he asked him as to who was the biggest robber and dacoit in the country. Ever the cautious, the bureaucrat named some nondescript person. Incensed by what he thought was a dishonest answer, the dacoit looked menacingly at him and told him to speak the truth. At this the bureaucrat named someone else which further infuriated the dacoit who said he would blow his head off if he was not careful. Left with little choice, the man, I am sure against his better bureaucratic instincts, took the name of the person - how shall I put it? - about whom it could be said as Cassius said of Caesar: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus... No sooner had he done this than the holdup man relaxed, flashed a knowing smile and lowered his gun.

While looking up this quote from Julius Caesar, I also came across those passages which speak of Brutus’s jealous regard for his honour. What a contrast this presents with our own country. People in positions of authority and power think nothing of being known universally as crooks and blackguards as long as they can keep enjoying the fruits of prosperity. A regard for honour or a concern for one’s reputation seems quaint and old-fangled notions. And well they might be because in other countries if you lampoon a person or turn him into an object of ridicule it has some effect. Here none at all. The notoriety of powerful individuals makes not the slightest difference to their social or political standing, so completely has the distinction or tameez between right and wrong disappeared from the Islamic model state.

As I write this I am aware of the element of repetition in these complaints. Don’t we all say how corrupt our society has become, how our values have become debased? Even so, the degil (obstinacy not really conveying the meaning of this Malay word) of our better off classes does not cease to amaze.

Take government pilgrimages to the Holy Land which certainly do not fall into the same league as highway robbery but which still indicate the contempt which the bonzes of the state have for public opinion. What criticism and even ridicule has this practice not invited? And yet the ministers and their rombangan have been on their endless umras at state expense and even now some top government ministers with an entourage in tow could be still in the Holy Land just after performing the haj for the umpteenth time.

We see occasionally in so called Islamic magazines published by the government agencies such scathing writings which, citing chapter and verse from the Quran, point out that using public money, money that belonged to the people, in order to perform the haj or the umra was totally against the tenets or the spirit of Islam. Our present rulers let no opportunity go by without extolling the virtues of Islam, the eternal guidance of the Qur’an etc.etc., or attacking the western culture, their loose morals etc. etc, yet all aspects of this corrupt western culture they have taken to with surprising ease.

In any event, is it not pertinent to ask what our great ones take the Lord of the Universe to be? Do they consider Him to be a wayside mendicant or the keeper of a ‘keramat’ whose goodwill can be bought by making a gesture or two in his direction? They will not use their power or authority for the general good, nor will they refrain from doing what they should not, but they will present themselves at regular intervals at the Holy Kaaba or the Masjid-i-Nabawi (at the public expense) and there pray loud and long for the country’s prosperity (and, since they are mortal, perhaps also for their own longevity). They cannot be having a very high opinion of the Supreme Intelligence if they seek to mock it in this manner.

In any case, it is a very shabby understanding of Islam to think that the mere ability to be in the Holy Land gives one a licence to do anything at home. As my undoubtedly limited knowledge of Islam tells me, performing the umra or the haj is good insofar as it makes one a better person. One has been touched by the Divine Presence and one is the better for it. But to go to the Holy Land whenever it pleases someone just because he has the resources of the state at his command and this act of piety having not the slightest effect on his actions, is not much different from the Roman Church at its worst: doing what one pleases and then buying immunity from divine prosecution through the sale of indulgences.

But enough of this. Stories abound in local news papers about people in high places involving in khalwat, indiscretion etc. Reacting to a recent case reported in the local newspaper involving certain actresses, corporate figures and some top civil servants in a sex for sale case, the police commissioner was on record saying that they had to move cautiously as this involves important people. Of course the Police commissioner retracted his statement but the lesson to learn was how the minds of the custodians of our law instinctively work. It is also wellknown how some people can be rehabilitated from head to foot just because the attorney general thinks so, no explanation required.

There are few examples from Islamic history which the devout of this land like to quote more often than that of the angry Bedouin who roughly asked the Caliph Omar as to how he had appropriated more cloth for his shirt from the Bait-ul-Maal than that falling to the share of others. We all know what Omar said: that since he was a tall man and his own share of the cloth would not have sufficed for his shirt, he had added to it the share of his son. How we love quoting this example and how we abhor the very thought of putting it into some form of practice.

Come to think of it, it is more a question of culture than of actual wrongdoing. When a columnist in local newspapers - such as Harakah, Aliran, Utusan Konsumer etc,- writes of social issues, of the way we waste public money, of nepotism, of the traffic and illegal toll collection which amounts to highway robbery, of the inventive marvel of special dais for the Quran competion, about the loutishness of our corporate figures, the lecherous behaviour of our sports champions or couches, and even of the tired and monotonous routine of our great singing maestros, what he serves to emphasise is a general decline in manners and a loss of anything remotely approaching good taste. We seem to have lost a sense of balance and propriety which is why our follies and the antics of our governing classes are becoming not so much more criminal as more egregious by the day.

But surely, someone will protest, this state of affairs is amenable to change and the gentle winds of reform. I wish this optimism could be more widely shared. As time passes we are getting more confirmed in our habits, with the result that the threshold of what is acceptable keeps rising. Insensibly but surely we are also reverting to some fixed patterns of our historical past. The lands which constitute Malaysia have in the past known just and orderly rule (and therefore a modicum of prosperity) not through the application of laws or the wholesome influence of durable institutions but through the rough justice flowing from the hands of strong ustads, ketua kampong and people in general. For the last twenty years we have destroyed other institutions and raised monuments to greed and corruption. Now we await the arrival of a Saviour. Other people may talk of the end of history. We are trying to go back to its beginnings.

Adapted from an article in The Dawn, Lahore by Ayaz Amir.

Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996

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