The Difference Between Right and Wrong
21 September 2003
Dictatorship breeds despair in society leading to a pessimistic outlook. And a disenchanted people.
Disenchantment, in turn, leads to despair, demoralisation and a defeatist attitude. This defeatist attitude is growing in Pakistan and in a number of countries that share, with Pakistan, a common history. A history of contradictions where freedom from colonialism was quickly replaced by domestic tyranny.
The movement against colonialism in the last century was led by brave and principled leaders. They created a resilient society inspiring people to greater heights and bigger sacrifices.
Value systems seep through the body politic of a society.
In a dictatorship, the appeal is to benefit oneself for a plot, a permit or a post. It breeds a culture of corruption that erodes the nobility of the individual and the soul of the society. The pursuit of selfish materialism results in poverty of life where those who have everything have nothing.
In contrast, political parties ask followers to abandon self interest to help others. It is the act of abandonment of self interest for a greater cause that infuses the spirit of life into the soul of a Nation. Here the individual gives up the dearest possessions: life, liberty, youth, family, health and livelihood to further a cause larger than the self.
Prosperous societies are built around the majesty of law. Here judges overturn governmental excesses to protect the individual. The act of overturning a publicly perceived excess is an act of justice that crowns the rule of law with splendour. Once the dominant Muslim culture rested on the pillars of Adl and Insaaf—of being just and dispensing justice.
In the twenty first century, the danger is that leadership betrays the public confidence and dishonours its heroic past. The legacy of fighting for the rule of law and the emancipation of society is giving way to the use of force. Force is used by a few to get what they want irrespective of whether their community believes it is right or wrong.
History is replete with examples of those marginalised because they thought wrong was right in the pursuit of an end they believed justified the means.
This is where some Muslim societies started to wander after a period of greatness. Some Muslim schools began teaching that it was alright to commit a wrong (haraam) act if it was for a right (halal) end.
Greatness rests on a sense of justice. Talk of a just leadership, a just society, a just war echoes through the corridors of history. It echoes because every great society and leadership flowed from the perception of justice done, of right triumphing over wrong, of the weak challenging the mighty because right empowered them to do so.
Civilisations collapsed, and societies are collapsing, as the distinction between right and wrong, right and might is blurring.
An ethical value system emphasises that right is stronger than might. Nations prosper where the weak and oppressed are considered equal to the rich and privileged. An ethical foundation brings individual prosperity irrespective of social background. To build ethical societies so many gave so much during the wave of anti colonialism movements that in the twentieth century produced independent nations.
Today some of those independent nations in the arc from Aden in the Yemen to the straits of Malacca face dangers of disintegration. The danger comes from the form of governance resting on despotism.
Dictatorial rulers use oppression, injustice, corruption to either bribe or terrorise otherwise good souls into debasing themselves into lower beings. In so doing, they corrupt an individual lacking the will to suffer. More dangerously, the fabric of society upon which ultimately rests the greatness of a Nation is destroyed. Fear begins to guide actions and reactions replacing the confidence that flows from the security that justice will be done.
Perhaps for this reason all the great religions of the world emphasised the importance of the word “just”. God is always just. God created humanity in His image. When humanity is unable to act justly, humanity loses its divine spirit. Without spirit, life ebbs away until what is left is lifelessness or death.
Islamabad is a case study. As elections are rigged, parliament mocked, parliamentarians pressured to sell themselves, the judiciary decried by the Pakistan Bar Council, the children of our generation suffer in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Their upbringing is handicapped by the incapacity of society to differentiate between right and wrong.
The Middle East is also an example. Here the Israelis and Palestinians ceased to care about each others children. The targets are not military. The targets are civilians randomly chosen to be killed. Hate generates hate and the fires of hate make rational thinking impossible.
An Israeli leader threatens to assassinate the President of the Palestinians. It is a reflection of the times that such a shocking threat be made. Even more sadly that such a threat was silently received by the majority of nations.
If such a threat is permitted to materialise, a Palestinian may assassinate an Israeli prime minister in retaliation. The Israelis will retaliate by upping the ante. The vicious cycle of violence will continue.
Each action is equal and opposite. Of violence and of peace. Of right and of wrong. But somehow this lesson is forgotten. The belief is that might will crush the enemy and bring a one-sided victory.
A world that once condemned assassination as an evil act remains silent. The sacrosanct nature of human life seems to lose its sanctity. The changing values describe a world losing contact with the qualities of ethics and morality once considered the moving forces of human and societal behaviour.
Is the change continental? The dominant value of the past was spread by European powers where civil rights and compassionate tolerance were the hallmarks of greatness. Today it is America which is the undeclared new empire of the world. It is an empire born of a past where the maxim in the expansive wilderness was a raw and ready justice: “dead or alive”.
This is in sharp contrast to the European ethos where each individual, even the most grotesque murderer, had rights and was entitled to an impartial trial. Previously a person was innocent before proven guilty. And that is what the United Nations Human Rights Convention still says. Yet the United Nations is no longer what it once was. A person is now presumed guilty and must battle to prove innocence.
The changing ethos takes place against a more violent world.
It seems that the ones with might need not listen to representative bodies or submit to collective will. Thus Pakistan’s dictator can remain president and army chief irrespective of what the Parliament thinks. And parliamentarians in Pakistan can switch sides for favours irrespective of what their constituents or parties think.
It must be asked: can such a value system produce societies that protect and nurture children, give pride to its youth and glory to its Nations?
The answer rests on making that crucial difference which once was made when religion, society and great leaders taught the difference between right and wrong.