The Politics of Austerity

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

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 willing   to 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 worldview 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 yourselves…?’ (2:44).

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.

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 poor  –  est; 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 better 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.


A.Khaleeli lable

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