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Celebrity Politicians vs. Servant Leadership

Malak Shalabi

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Over the past few years, many politicians have attained pop culture status. From sarcastically quote tweeting to posting memes, from citing their love for Tupac to making known their experiences smoking weed, politicians on every side are earnestly trying to show that they are relatable — that “we are just like you!”

But what does it mean for a state-person to truly “represent” us?

Especially using the tool of social media, PR teams have developed a public image of the politician that is relatable and reflects mainstream language and debate on different policy issues. However, this imagery quickly crumbles when studying most politicians’ policy stances beyond rhetoric. Among those who work daily to promote social justice, how meaningful is a politician’s rhetoric for equality when they actively support the U.S. armed forces and their imperial endeavors abroad? How impactful is a state-person’s rhetoric on economic inequality when they supported tax cuts to the richest, and the defunding of social security and other public welfare programs for America’s most poor? How honest is a party member’s proclaimed commitment to social justice when their track record reveals that they worked to draft, uphold, and implement discriminatory policies that built the system the way it is today?

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Politicians serve a very specific role in government — and by definition, they work to serve and uphold the political system in America. As officials elected by the majority of their constituents, they can serve as vessels that reflect shifts in the policy positions of the majority. The bottom-up, or grassroots approach, in educating communities and the masses to influence politicians and legislation, is impactful in that it utilizes the power of the people in a democratic system. For this reason, when politicians do make improvements in their rhetoric or stances on issues like criminal justice reform, immigration, and racism, it is the result of the community organizers, educators, and greater movement which created the new norm.

While it may at first seem harmless to grant politicians social or celebrity status, the result, as we have seen before, during, and beyond Donald Trump’s reality TV show of a presidency, is numbing and destructive. Seeing politicians as people “just like us” is dishonest. Politicians have more resources, more responsibility, and therefore a higher level of accountability for the actions they take with the power they have.

Invading Iraq wasn’t a “mistake” Bush made. Obama didn’t “do the best he could” to shut down Guantanamo Bay. Supporting segregation and drafting the 1994 Crime Bill to propel the War on Drugs, incarcerating tens of thousands of Black men, wasn’t a “misjudgement” on Biden’s part. The victims of these political decisions are still suffering. Arab families are still being blown up into pieces in their own homes. Muslims are still being tortured and held in solitary confinement without any trial or charge, and our Black brothers are still imprisoned for the same crime our Vice President, a former prosecutor, bragged to have committed when she was in college. When we see politicians as people “just like us”, we start to make excuses for them as if the circle of their impact is limited to just themselves and those around them — which is not the case. To whitewash their crimes and glamorize their personalities and image is to spit on the grave of every victim of their political decisions.

Politicians are not our idols. They are public servants.

With the heightened level of trust, power and resources they have, they must be held to a heightened level of scrutiny and accountability in all of their political decisions. In respecting ourselves, our communities, and our causes, we cannot operate in a way that is sympathetic to the system we claim to be fighting against.

In contrast to the celebrity of leadership in our modern context, in the Islamic tradition, leadership is seen as a burden. In Chapter 33 of the Quran, God relays,

“Truly, we did offer (trust) to the heavens and the earth, and the mountains — but they declined to bear it and were afraid of it.”

With any position of power comes a duty of accountability to the people, as they place their confidence and faith that who they chose will protect and nurture their communities.

Servant Leadership                                                                                        

Omar ibn al-Khattab was a prime example of servant leadership: a leadership philosophy in which the objective of the leader is to serve with an emphasis on the growth and well-being of the people and communities to which they belong. One day, when Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him)was walking in the night, he approached a woman and her crying children, who were sitting around a fire as something was boiling. When he asked her about the situation, she said,

“We are all hungry. I am boiling rocks to pretend that I am cooking, so that our children would think that there was food coming, and they would fall asleep satisfied with the thought.”

She hadn’t recognized that it was Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), and she said, “Allah would judge between them and the Caliph (or leader, who was Omar, at the time). Omar asked her,

“What do you mean by that, how could the Caliph know of your plight?” She said, “Omar calls himself the leader of the Muslims, and yet is not fulfilling his obligations to myself and my children.”

Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) quickly ran back to a food storage unit with his servant, packing food and collecting meat. He asked the servant to strap the groceries to his own back, and when the servant offered to carry them himself, Omar asked him,

“Are you also going to carry the burden of my sins on the day of judgment?”

He carried the food on his back to her home, and prepared the meal for the woman, who still was ignorant of the fact that she was speaking with the Caliph Omar himself. As they finished, she said, “I will bear witness for you on the Day of Judgment to Allah. You deserve to be Caliph more than Omar does.”

In another story, Salman al-Farisi had refused to sit and listen to the sermon of Omar bin al-Khattab raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), who was Caliph and gave the Friday sermons. When asked why, he said, “Everyone is wearing one piece of cloth (as clothing), and Omar is wearing two.”

When Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) heard of this, instead of being defensive, instead of protecting his position, instead of deferring to his authority, he allowed his son Abdullah to inform the man that the second piece of cloth was his son’s. It was relayed that he needed two pieces of cloth to cover himself properly, as a big man. After hearing this, Salman said, “Now we shall listen to you.”

And to end, with a stunning quote from Omar ibn al-Khattab as reported by Dawud ibn Ali, “If a lost sheep under my care were to die on the banks of the Euphrates, I would expect Allah the Exalted to question me about it on the Day of Resurrection.”

Servant leadership, as modeled by Omar ibn al-Khattab raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), is centered around fulfilling the duties and needs of your people. In his stories, Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) modeled excellent listening skills and rushed responsiveness, humility, and an immense sense of responsibility. He recognized his position as an individual with the power and political status to influence the lives of people, and even animals, in his community and beyond.

In contrast to the celebrity of leadership in our modern context, in the Islamic tradition, leadership is seen as a burden. In Chapter 33 of the Quran, God relays,

“Truly, we did offer (trust) to the heavens and the earth, and the mountains — but they declined to bear it and were afraid of it.”

With any position of power comes a duty of accountability by the people, as they place their confidence and faith that who they chose will protect and nurture their communities.

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Alhamdulillah, we're at 900 supporters. Help us get to 1000 supporters before Ramadan ends. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Malak Shalabi is a J.D. student and FLAS fellow at the University of Washington School of Law, and works as the Media Coordinator with American Muslims for Palestine. She has researched and written on occupation, torture, and U.S. imperialism in the Middle East.

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