In this age of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and other controversial figures who regularly dominate the world spotlight, "politics" and "politicians" have become almost synonymous with lying, corruption, incompetence and the abuse of power. But these fundamental terms need to be defended and restored, because like it or not, the quality of our political leaders can and does change history.
To judge political leaders, first look at their records; secondly, look at their records; and thirdly, look at their records. Why the emphasis on records? It is simply because politics is the science and art of pursuing and achieving the common good. Thus, how far a political leader can go in bringing about the maximum common good in the shortest time, and with the least ethical and financial cost to future generations, is an effective measure of that person’s ability to govern.
Today, we can readily see a global economy emerging, but there is much less evidence of a parallel growth in global political morality. Principles and programs are important in politics, but both are trumped by circumstance. Yet after everything is said and done, the real condition of the people has always mattered far more than any theory or policy.
So who can history offer us as the ideal political leader who could stand as a model or mentor, a leader who was a shining example of his or her time, and for times to come? There is one who, sadly, is not well enough known to today’s generation of global politicians.
Let me introduce Omar the Great, the second Khalif of the Muslim Commonwealth, who in ten short years (634 to 644 A.D.) managed to transform "liberal social democrat" from a static phrase into an active, energetic principle.
First, he did what any top calibre leader should do. He assembled a cabinet whose male and female members were each leading experts in their respective fields or disciplines, as well as being individuals of the highest moral integrity. For example, in the area of law he chose Imam Ali; for matters of religion he chose the Prophet Muhammad’s widow, ‘Aisha; and to deal with defense and security he chose a man like Khalid.
Ideal political leaders must also be prepared to make personal sacrifices and Omar consistently did so. He chose to live among the people in his pre-election house, at the income level of an average citizen. He refused bodyguards and other perks of office and traveled just as he used to, with no extra luxury. Despite the prestige of his position, Omar refrained from accepting any extravagance, excess, or wealth from the public treasury.
A great leader must also be ready to make tough decisions in consultation with impartial experts who have no hidden agenda, and can be trusted to put their love of the public good ahead of self- interest. Omar was at the forefront of such enlightened policy-making. When famine stuck his people, he suspended the criminal penalty for theft in Islamic law. And when infectious diseases threatened to become widespread, he enforced history’s first mass medical quarantine.
In the realm of public education, he placed the highest priorities on improving language and useful skills. In government, he was the first ruler to introduce separate public ministries, management by objectives, a modern postal service, annual government budgets, multi-levelled administration for cities and provinces, history’s first ministry of statistics, a ministry of finance, and a provincial and federal prison system.
Omar also broke new ground by insisting that local Commonwealth governors in Iraq, Persia, Egypt, and Syria ran their provincial administrations in their own languages — an unheard-of degree of autonomy.
In economic policy he introduced history’s first true welfare state, which included both government-paid child allowances and old age security pensions. In the field of trade and commerce, he introduced history’s first free but fair trade laws, which forbade monopolization and product dumping. He encouraged employment training for new skills and seriously promoted major urban building projects like public roads and canals. At the same time, he did not neglect the vital contributions of agriculture, ensuring that farmers were proud contributors to the local economy.
Omar the Great was the first to rule by the concept that government must be answerable at all levels — to the courts, to independent auditors, and to ordinary citizens, via autonomous public watchdog organizations who could report directly to him. In both concept and action, he believed that governing is a public service, not a family kingdom, a heavy responsibility and sometimes a severe challenge for both governor and governed. Governing must therefore be based on listening, consultancy, advocacy, persuasion, negotiation, compromise and ultimately, decision. And political decisions, when taken, must be firm but not oppressive, genteel and humane, but not weak or ambivalent.
In addition to establishing courts as public institutions, Omar also formed local non-governmental mediation councils to ease judicial backlogs. Just as importantly, he made sure that no public servant or politician would get unduly rich while in office. He ordered that the assets of any government employee were to be recorded before and after taking office; if there was evidence that the individual had accumulated inappriopriate amounts of wealth, that person would be obligated to account for it.
Omar’s own annual allowance was just enough for him to live a very modest middle-class life, even though his civil servants and the appointed mayors and premiers of Commonwealth states were paid much higher salaries.
When the Egyptian governor’s son assumed that his father’s high position would give him immunity after hitting another man, Omar ordered the victim to hit his aristocratic assailant back in public. This incident gave rise to his famous saying, "How dare you enslave anyone when their mothers delivered them free people?!"