Ethics in politics

Taha Abdel Alim , Saturday 7 Apr 2012

Does the end really justify the means? Islamic and Egyptian history offers lessons evidently not being learned

Once we accept the necessity of separating ethics and politics, it is safe to assume that battles over the referendum, the constitution and elections were all prime examples of politicking. If we believe that ignoring conscience results in successful politics and so benefits the nation, then perhaps we should accept that what we have seen as politics played out among the people. This raises a fundamental issue about the connection between morality and political success. More importantly, it raises a fundamental question: Can the nation’s interests be served by disregarding principles, even if tangible achievements are made?

To answer this question, let us summarise the lesson and consequences of the conflict between Ali Ibn Abi Taleb and Muawiya as retold by Sheikh Sayed Qutb, a key figure for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the Salafists and the jihadists — especially in his inspired work The Books and Personalities. This will be followed by a quick overview of the rise and fall of the Arab-Islamic civilisation as told by Hussein Mo’nes, the great Egyptian Muslim thinker, in his memorable book Egypt and Her Message. Finally, I will look at the rise and fall of the Old Kingdom in Pharaonic Egypt as portrayed by James Henry Breasted, the pioneer Egyptologist in his great tome The Dawn of Civilisation.


Qutb writes, “Ali did not lack the tools to prevail, but he did not stoop to using corrupt methods. Muawiya and his friend Amr [ibn Al-‘Ass] did not prevail over Ali because they had more insight or more knowledgeable than he, but because they freely used any type of weapon at hand. While he [Ali] was confined by his morals in his choice of how to do battle, Muawiya and his friend [Amr ibn Al-’As] resorted to lying, cheating, deception, hypocrisy and bribery. Ali did not stoop to these lesser standards. So, no wonder that they succeeded where he failed; it was a failure more honourable than any success.

“Muawiya’s victory,” Qutb goes on, “was catastrophic for the spirit of Islam that had not yet taken hold in people’s conscience. If Ali were victorious, his success would have been a victory for the true spirit of Islam: the supremely just and moral spirit that does not resort to unscrupulous methods in battle. Islam may have expanded at the hands of Muawiya and his successors, but the spirit of Islam receded, was defeated and even extinguished. There is no need to encourage people to follow Muawiya’s example; it is part of human nature. We should urge them to follow Ali’s example. Muawiya showed Machiavellian characteristics centuries before Machiavelli even appeared. This is what controls the people of this generation, and they don’t need encouragement from anyone because it is the tendency of opportunism.”

To avoid the censure of extremists and fanatics (he had not yet become a jihadist Salafist or the leader of the MB), Qutb notes, “I am not saying this because I am a Shiite, but I am looking at the issue from a spiritual and moral angle. One does not need to be Shiite to side with good morals over immoral opportunism. Ali is victorious over Muawiya and Amr with his finesse, purity and steadfastness. Anyone who believes that practical victories are what people and humanity seek should know that these are short-lived victories that are eventually exposed.”


For his part Mo’nes wrote the following about the power coup in the caliphate: “Ali ibn Abi Taleb attempted to restore Islamic rule to its proper course, and began by removing the governors who had the most complaints against them. Bani Umayya disobeyed his orders and civil war broke out, and Muawiya became Caliph through trickery and the force of arms, not by right, choice or even compromise. Force, violence, tyranny, injustice and aggression became the guidelines of governance instead of justice, consultation and higher morals. The Abbasid caliphs relied on mercenary soldiers who were adventurers without conscience, and in the end they humiliated the caliphs themselves.”

The outcome of this coup, Mo’nes continues, “was that the citizens were removed from the political arena and lost their right to participate in managing their own affairs. The nation became the enemy of the sultan, and the sultan an enemy of the nation. The rule of the caliphs and sultans became a ball tossed between professionals in the crooked game of politics, and the nation lost its sense of governance as being rightful. In the end, the ruler resorted to the Mamlukes, humiliating the nation.

“Eventually, political institutions vanished when the Mamlukes realised that the sultan is a hindrance, and so dispatched him and took over power. No one cared about replacing an unjust ruler with an unjust usurper. If Egypt made some progress during Islamic rule, the credit goes to Egypt which elevated [those rulers]. When the age of creativity ended in Muslim intellectualism, isolation set in — as did the tendency to replicate the innovations of ancestors without any additions or originality. Egypt became impotent and sterile, and woke up from its comatose state in what seemed like an entirely different world.”


Thirdly, let us document Breasted’s firm declarations without fear of Jewish claims that Judaism is the root of the West’s moral heritage: “It has only been 5,000 years since Man began to feel the power of conscience, and discovering ethics was the noblest accomplishment he achieved. The emergence of civilisation in Egypt was the first such evolution on the planet, which was the first evidence that Man can evolve from barbarism to higher social standards.

“It was the first civilisation on the planet that upheld significant moral values. The oldest model of an ethics system appeared in the mid-4th century BC, and was expressed in one universal word that connoted majesty and refinement, ‘Ma’t’ – truth, justice and honesty.

“Once injustice replaced justice and mayhem reigned after the collapse of the moral code that was there for 1,000 years, some fell prey to severe depression and were suspicious of everything. But griping was not the only response of ancient Egyptians at the first calamity in their history, after the collapse of the Ancient Kingdom. They also began to be more clearly cognizant of moral values once again and the importance of upholding principles…”


In conclusion, learning the lessons of history is the duty of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists and the jihadists, just as it is the duty of other political forces who believe that the end justifies the means. When we review the serious losses caused by failing to properly manage the interim phase after the 25 January revolution, and the inherent risks in failing to manage the challenges of formulating the mission of the Constituent Assembly for Egypt’s constitution, and of electing the first president of the Second Republic, then the answer to the question asked in the beginning — Can the nation’s interests be served by disregarding principles, even if those who abandon ethics accomplish tangible achievements? — can only be a definitive No.

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