A truly Islamic welfare state — Saad Hafiz

Sunday, March 24, 2013 – Dailytimes

VIEW : A truly Islamic welfare state — Saad Hafiz

It is also not sufficient to argue that Pakistan has to be an Islamic welfare state because it was established on the basis of Islam

The establishment of a truly Islamic welfare state is a popular slogan in Pakistan, particularly during election season. It is presented by its proponents as an all-encompassing panacea for societal ills. It is argued that such a state would eliminate vices like feudalism, lawlessness, injustice, ethnic and sectarian conflicts, obscenity and vulgarity, and ostentation. It would reduce the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor; it would dispense impartial justice to all irrespective of the status and would help in the equitable distribution of wealth. An Islamic welfare state would achieve this equitable distribution within the framework of individual freedom but with spiritual and legal imperatives to safeguard public interest, moral constraints against unearned income, and social obligations to ensure a just distribution of income and wealth. The freedom of expression, occupation and movement would be assured in an Islamic state. “Bahrainis are better off than many other Arabs. We have a welfare state, everybody gets a salary whether they have a job or not. Electricity and food are subsidised; school and healthcare are free. And we don’t differentiate between Bahrainis and foreigners. We are very proud of that.”– Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa

It is said that the concept of an Islamic welfare state is comprehensive in nature differing fundamentally from western notions. It aims to achieve the total welfare of the people of which economic welfare is merely a part. In addition, the social and economic effects of an Islamic welfare state are wholesome and the social pattern that emerges is free from the hideous tyrannies of capitalism and socialism. It is the responsibility of the state to protect the poor and the helpless from the economic exploitation of the rich and the strong. This creates an all-pervading social harmony that led H G Wells to remark that “Islam has created a society more free from widespread cruelty and social oppression than any society had ever been in the world before.” In contrast, the emphasis of the western welfare state is only on the material welfare of the people. This concept neglects the equally important spiritual and moral welfare of the people. Although capitalism also recognises freedom of the individual, there are no spiritual constraints on this freedom.

It may be worth examining what the broad contours of a truly Islamic State would look like. Religion would certainly be a moral guide and unifying ideology of such a state. Islamic goals would be supreme over state interests. The Shari’a will serve as the main source of law and as a constitution. Qualified persons, doubtless Ulema (scholars) will interpret Islamic law as they understand it. The principles and strictures of Islam including mode of punishment would govern public behaviour, with education and intellectual life being mainly shaped by the Ulema’s preaching and sermons. It would also demand complete adherence to Islamic law, aspirations and practices even in administrative, economic and political affairs. It would probably require politically centralised, bureaucratic, even absolute, government led by an ameer-ul-momineen (commander of the faithful). From past political experiences, robust consultative mechanisms would be needed to prevent it from turning into a puritanical, totalitarian and inward -looking society.

Regardless of its Islamic character, such a state would face similar challenges to a western welfare state. The state cannot remain isolated from external economic and political pressures. International competition will make a welfare state’s economy less competitive because the high tax rates needed to sustain it will stifle economic growth. It will require an ethnically homogenous society with high levels of mutual trust and strong work ethic for it to work. It would need considerable indigenous wealth and/or a booming capitalist economy to retain its financial viability. These traits may keep the welfare system afloat for decades. But the work ethic and the sense of duty will slowly erode, to be replaced by a sense of rights, creating a dependent people. High taxation and the passivity bred by the system will replace initiative and the will to take risks. The most likely result would be a ‘peaceful utopia’ controlled by a bureaucracy that actively discourages all signs of individuality and dissent. This totalitarian impulse has been implicit in the welfare state from its very inception. Again, Islamic or not these flaws are inherent to the welfare state model and they make time to develop, but they will, eventually.

Some conclusions can be reached. First, despite the optimism expressed by Sheikh Khalifa and H G Wells, there are a few examples of socially harmonious, just and equitable societies in Islamic history. In fact, quite the opposite may be true if we look at the theological dystopias masquerading as truly Islamic welfare states in the Middle East today. Second, it is also not sufficient to argue that Pakistan has to be an Islamic welfare state because it was established on the basis of Islam. Unlike many other Islamic societies, Pakistani society has a strong democratic tradition, proven time and time again, in struggles against dictatorship and obscurantism. That being said, the demand for a truly Islamic state will continue to resurface until Pakistani democracy starts to deliver tangible economic, social and political benefits to the people.

The writer can be reached at shgcci@gmail.com

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