North Korea might be infamous for the personality cult of the Kims, but it’s hardly the only country in the world where important leaders and personalities are viewed with unnerving reverence. Sure, most countries don’t ascribe godly status to modern day leaders like North Korea does, but most of us come from countries where the founders or important leaders of those countries are viewed with great admiration to the point where they become holy. That is a problem.
Take the case of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan. Jinnah could be credited as the primary reason why Pakistan exists today and why I call myself a Pakistani. It was the combination of Jinnah’s resilience and the urgency of the British to exit India that led to them agreeing to the idea of Pakistan. Jinnah argued for the state of Pakistan on many platforms. But that is exactly the point: he argued for it. He was a prominent lawyer who was making a case for a country. He used whatever arguments he could, whenever he believed it was necessary because he considered his ultimate aim to be justified. Hence, you’ll find many contradictory statements made by Jinnah during his campaign for Pakistan. Jinnah is not the only historical figure to have done this, but he is certainly one of them.
The problem is that if I, as a Pakistani, criticize Jinnah, I’ll be immediately ostracized for it. Any politician who says, “I disagree with what Jinnah said” would hardly be able to see success in the political realm. Because Jinnah fought for Pakistan, he has been sanctified to such a point that any criticism of him is deemed treachery. All ideas Jinnah put forth are hence off limits for commentary, and it is only his vision that should be followed. That is where the problem lies: ideas should never be off limits. They should always be open to scrutiny and critical analysis.
So what motivates a person to refuse to objectively analyze ideas of the founders of a society? Maybe it’s because the personality cult becomes an essential part of their identity. If we are criticizing Jinnah’s ideals, then we are criticizing the notion behind Pakistan. If we criticize Pakistan, then that might be an insult to someone who considers being Pakistani an important part of his identity. For that someone, Jinnah is not a man: Jinnah is a symbol intrinsic to the idea of Pakistan.
The opinion that we should continue to do what our forefathers did might also be tied to the idea of success. Because they were ultimately successful in whatever way they were, adopting a different path might be disastrous. For the Bedouins in pre-Islamic Arabia, following the ways of their ancestors was important to their survival. They called this sharia, which literally means “path to the waterhole.” Because of limited resources, there was little space for creativity and exploration. Hence, people chose to stick to the path and ideas as put forth by the founding fathers because they had proven successful. But, I concede, not all personality cults are founded on the success of personalities. Even then, it is notable that people who sanctify founding fathers often refuse to acknowledge that some of their ideas might be irrelevant, outdated or just plain wrong.
This refusal to acknowledge that a founder’s idea may be irrelevant is problematic. If Pakistan, for instance, continues to occupy itself with the contradictions of Jinnah and refuses to look for an alternative ideal, then it is going to be stuck in the ideological mess it is in right now. On the other hand, I can choose either to be an outsider by criticizing Jinnah or to participate in the personality cult of Jinnah, become accepted and try to fix the system from within.
So here is my plea: when you look up to your ideal leaders, be they founders or not, choose to criticize them. Look at them objectively, separate them from their ideas and scrutinize them because ultimately they are fallible. That alone is the remedy to many ideological problems in many countries.
Muhammad Usman is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.