Her Say: Virtuous leaders guide by example

Leaders must be held to account. But what can and should we demand?

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Around the world Muslims are celebrating the birth of the Prophet Mohammed.

As ever when it comes to things among the ummah, it is a contentious issue. With any historic figure, exact dates are always unclear, which causes the first confusion. More divisive is the question of whether to celebrate the Milad - the birthday - or not. Some believe with intense passion that Muslims should not celebrate because nobody at the time of the Prophet celebrated his birth, and to do so now would be a religious innovation.

I don't agree with this. It is instinctive to publicly express your feelings when you believe someone has fundamentally changed the way that you think about the world for the better. Anyway, we mark national days to create community pride and the end of the school year to celebrate our children's achievements. Why not mark a day for a man from whom we have learnt so much?

Wherever you stand on this debate, it is worth spending time remembering the fact that he was an unparalleled leader, one who changed a tribe, a community, a nation, a globe. And if there were ever a time where we need to reflect on good leadership, that time is now.

Last year brought unexpected changes in the world's leadership, and 2012 is likely to be equally dramatic. Mubarak has gone. Saleh is departing. Assad is in a stand-off with his population. Libya and Egypt will probably hold elections. Americans also go to the polls. China will have a change of leadership.

Leaders must be held to account. But what can and should we demand?

The qualities that the Prophet Mohammed was famed for were his honesty and trustworthiness, qualities that he displayed over the first 40 years of his life before even he declared the message of Islam. Before making his announcement, he asked people if they had known him to be anything other than truthful. And throughout his subsequent years he constantly asked the people following him for the authority to proceed.

He was a leader who instinctively understood that behaviour in his private life was not disconnected from his public role. In fact, he emphasised the opposite - that it is through understanding how people behave in private with the people closest and dearest to them that we understand the true character of a human being. If a leader cheats on their spouse, a person they have vowed to remain faithful to and cherish, why should we trust them in their public role?

This is in stark contrast to much of today's leadership, who believe that misdemeanours in private should not affect their public role and that those who elect them and pay their salaries should not be concerned by this. What nonsense.

A person's moral character - whether they profess a religion or not - intimately informs how they guide their followers. With the caveat that we should recognise that leaders are human and can make mistakes (and should then admit to them), we should demand the highest standards.

Leaders must show a constant commitment to earning our trust by keeping their promises and demonstrating their honesty and devotion to always doing the best for the public rather than themselves. In turn, we have a responsibility to demand accountability and honesty from leaders. Last year, Arab countries set the ball rolling. We need to keep up the momentum.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk