Prior to nineteenth-century monarchies, colonial rulers and autocracies dominated the pattern of governance worldwide. Family lineage and military power dictated the terms of legitimacy, and individuals were often compelled to accept this modus operandi by force if necessary.
Over time, an increased philosophical awareness of the natural rights of liberty and equality of all human beings changed the fundamental characteristics of governance. The American Revolution in 1776 placed these ideas as the source of legitimacy in governance, and much of the world has subsequently gravitated towards this idea of self-rule.
Many of these ideas were originally articulated by classical thinkers including Socrates, Plato, Aquinas, and European enlightenment philosophers. According to these theses, all human beings are born with inalienable rights endowed by their Creator, as well as an inherent and unchangeable nature that senses right from wrong, exercises reason, and demands liberty and equality for all.
It is pertinent to note that the Quran also alludes to this powerful unchangeable true human nature (‘fitra’) the compliance with which constitutes the one ever true religion for humankind (30:30). By virtue of this endowment and empowerment — the Quran alludes — all humans are God’s vicegerent or representatives (‘khalifa’) on earth with inherent rights and responsibilities. Therefore, rationally, a vicegerent of God cannot be a subject of a ruler but he/she could be a citizen of a self-rule.
The founders of the American Revolution were deeply influenced by the concepts of natural rights of a human being. They came to the conclusion that only an impartial rule of law legitimised by popular will could meet the demands of human nature. They sensed that the disorder and turmoil of past eras were due to a failure to comply with the dictates of human nature. Thus, they struggled to devise a system of governance that would remain accountable to its people, by instituting strategically designed electoral systems, separation of powers, and proper checks and balances among three branches of government.
The founders also foresaw difficulties in democracy. For example, if the representatives of voters came to power via elections and the rule of the majority, they could potentially trample upon the inherent rights of the minorities in a society. The founders therefore framed a “constitution” that defined the rule of law to ensure the rights of every citizen including that of minorities. Thus, the concept of a republic came into existence.
Additionally, if nationhood is solely defined by a common culture, history, language, and religion, a society would remain vulnerable to migrations of people from other cultures and ethnicities. Therefore, the founders defined nationhood in terms of values and principles of humanity that would integrate diverse communities regardless of ethnicities, cultures, and religions that can too often divide societies.
At the outset, America did not live up to what the founders laid down in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Slaves did not have the rights of citizens, and women could not vote until the 1920s. These inequalities brought about turmoil and instability. Through a bloody civil war and long arduous movements such as the collective bargaining movement, the women’s liberation movement, the Hispanic-Latino immigrant rights movement, the indigenous Native American movements, and the African-American Civil Rights movement, the nation eventually charted a different course and began to comply in a more congruent manner with the founding ideals of liberty, dignity and equality of all citizens.
Good governance is not only about holding elections and establishing checks and balances in a government. These methods are only means to attain certain goals: to serve people by upholding their rights and dignity, by establishing equity and justice, and by establishing stability and progress of the society. Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote about democracy — a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” — fits the general idea of good governance. The people should hold the ultimate power in the society.
If an election somehow brings in representatives who fail to attain these goals of peace, justice, and progress, the democratic system will have failed. Therefore, the people of a nation must remain vigilant as to their rights and must participate in the process of governance to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens. It is ultimately the people who will dictate their government to move towards deliverance of peace, justice, and progress.
Below, there are some essential principles, characteristics and measures of good governance:
* Proper checks and balances among the three branches of a government;
* A sociopolitical culture to ensure peoples’ participation without which good governance is not possible. People must remain active and engaged in the process of governance. A large number of people should take part in the broader decision making processes of a society. This participatory democratic culture is the key to sustain good democratic governance;
* Visionary, forceful and engaged civil societies are prerequisites of good governance. They are supposed to be the trailblazers in a society. On the one hand, they help raise dialogues with the people to establish and maintain a vibrant sociopolitical culture and a national consensus as to the priorities of governance, on the other, become a countervailing force in compelling the government to comply with the guidelines and standards of affairs they set;
* Political parties must operate democratically. Unless and until the political parties remain committed to the democratic principles in disposing their own internal affairs a nation cannot become democratic;
* There should be term limits for all political positions, including the prime minister, party officials, judges, and others;
* Judicial independence a must for a healthy society. In order to ensure independence, the appointment processes of judges of the Supreme Court and the high court systems should be rigorous and extensive, including but not limited to public hearings conducted by civil society committees and/or other kinds of public scrutiny;
* Freedom of the press and free speech a must for democracy;
* The right to assemble and the right to peaceful protest are fundamental rights of all citizens;
* Balancing between the individual rights and collective rights. In fact, both the pursuit of individual achievement and the pursuit of collective welfare are equally necessary in a society. However, there must be a balance between these two sets of rights. Muslim-majority societies may often remain preoccupied with collective rights, while Western societies are often obsessed with individualism. But neither of these extreme imbalances contributes to good governance in a society.
As time unfolds, as societies become more interconnected and interdependent, as our concepts of nationhood change, as we learn to retain and value our own cultures and traditions while still peacefully integrating with the rest of humanity, as the world becomes more of a global village, as the divisions between the rich and the poor increase, and other dividers wrongfully divide us, our challenge remains to contribute to global good governance just as we endeavour to our own local good governance. That is the call of our collective conscience, dictated by our ever-true human nature endowed by the Creator.
The writer is Executive Director, US-based Muslims for Peace, Justice and Progress.