Machiavellianism may explain dominant forms of politics in Middle East: professor

April 9, 2016

TEHRAN – Professor Farhang Jahanpour, a former senior research fellow at Harvard University, says, “One school of thought that may come close to explaining most of the dominant forms of politics in the Middle East is Machiavellianism.”

 “While Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ was supposed to be a manual for rulers, and about how a new prince should behave, his book advocates a dark and cynical philosophy, with a clear disregard for morality and a focus on self-interest and manipulation of others,” Farhang Jahanpour tells the Tehran Times.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: Has the political logic dominating the Middle East in recent years been Hobbesian, Lockean, or Kantian?

A: This is a very complex philosophical question, which requires an analysis that is beyond the scope of this short interview. However, it is time to begin asking these important questions, as the Middle East is not an island isolated from the rest of the world, but increasingly it is becoming an important part of the international community. As the result of profound and accelerating changes that are taking place in the Middle East, it is only right to think about these larger issues and decide which paths to choose.

As we are talking about philosophical issues, it is natural that we cannot give a precise answer to this question, because there is not complete unanimity about the true definition of those philosophies. Often, some of the notions that have been traditionally accepted about those philosophies are quite controversial, and it is possible to find different interpretations of them.

1- For instance, Hobbesian philosophy is often taken as meaning that society needs a strong government at the top, otherwise there will be chaos. However, although superficially Hobbes is believed to be a champion of absolutism for the sovereign or the ruler, he was also one of the first philosophers who advocated the rights of the citizens and developed some of the fundamentals of liberal thought.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher who lived during the English Civil War between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. It was due to the chaos and disorder that he witnessed that he leaned towards the need for order and stability. In his 1651 book, “Leviathan”, he developed the “Social Contract” theory, which laid the foundation of most of later European and American political thought.

He stated that the lack of rules would lead to a “war of all against all”. Furthermore, it would lead to chaos and a return to nature, where there would be “no knowledge on the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

This is why he believed in order and the need for obedience to an “accountable” sovereign. However, he stressed that the government should respect the rights of the individuals, the natural equality of all citizens, the artificial character of the political order, the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people, and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid.

Clearly one cannot say that Hobbesian political philosophy best represents the current situation in most Middle Eastern countries.

2- John Locke (1632–1704) went even further than Hobbes in defending the rights of all citizens.  In the “Two Treatises of Government”, he claimed that men are by nature free. He rejected the claims that God had made all people naturally subject to a monarch. He argued that people have rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and property, which have a foundation independent of the laws of any particular society. Therefore, no government can deprive its citizens of those rights by any claim of possessing the inherent right to rule or by the laws that it legislates.

Based on his belief that all people are free and have some inherent and inalienable rights, Locke said that people may voluntarily decide to transfer some of their rights to the government in order to better ensure the stable and comfortable enjoyment of their lives, liberty, and property.

On this basis, he also stressed the concept of a “Social Contract” between the people and their rulers. This philosophy certainly went against the concept of the divine right of kings or the infallibility of the Church and the right of the Pope or the clergy to rule the people. According to “Social Contract”, people freely decide to delegate some of their rights to the government and they can also withhold that permission when they feel that the government has become dictatorial.

In his “Letter Concerning Toleration”, Locke stressed that no coercion should be used to force the people to obey the ruler or the true religion, and he also denied that churches should have any coercive power over their members. The ideas of Hobbes and Locke had a great impact both on the American Bill of Rights, as well as on the French Revolution.

It is quite clear that Lockean philosophy does not represent what one can see today in most Middle Eastern countries.

3- Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a German philosopher whose ideas were based on rationality. He believed that reason is the source of morality. Therefore, his ideas of society were based on the power of rationality. He did not deny that there might be some metaphysical concepts, but he maintained that they are by nature unknowable, and as a result it is futile to argue about them, because they belong to the realm of “transcendental” ideas that are not within the domain of human reason.


Totalitarianism tries to brainwash the population by having a monopoly of the media and is often marked by political repression, restriction of free speech, mass surveillance and extensive use of security apparatus to force people to fall into line.

He was one of the earliest philosophers who believed that perpetual peace could be achieved through universal democracy and international cooperation. Kant has had a wide and increasing influence on the major political philosophers, including John Rawls whose books have been translated into Persian and who was popular among many Iranian thinkers.

It is clear that Kantian philosophy is also not applicable to the current situation in the Middle East.

Q: If you believe that none of those philosophies are applicable to the current situation in the Middle East, which form of political philosophy do you think is most representative of the Middle East in the early 21st Century?

A: Again, the answer to this question is also difficult, because all the countries in the Middle East are not the same and so it is wrong to generalize. None of the following categories applies fully to any country in the Middle East, but some people may be able to see traces of these traits in some politicians.

1- One school of thought that may come close to explaining most of the dominant forms of politics in the Middle East is Machiavellianism. While Machiavelli’s “The Prince” was supposed to be a manual for rulers, and about how a new prince should behave, his book advocates a dark and cynical philosophy, with a clear disregard for morality and a focus on self-interest and manipulation of others.

The term Machiavellianism has become synonymous with deceit, duplicity, lack of morality and cold calculation for personal profit and gratification. One can see some echoes of this behavior not only in some Middle Eastern politicians, but indeed in politicians throughout the world.

2- Totalitarianism is another philosophy that can apply to some countries in the Middle East. Totalitarianism applies to a political system that does not recognize any limits on its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of people’s lives. It makes little distinction between the public and private lives of citizens and intrudes into people’s private lives and even their beliefs and thoughts.

It tries to brainwash the population by having a monopoly of the media and is often marked by political repression, restriction of free speech, mass surveillance and extensive use of security apparatus to force people to fall into line. The clearest examples of that philosophy could be seen in communism and fascism, but aspects of it can also be seen in some Middle Eastern countries.

3- Cynicism is a third philosophy, which is characterized by a general feeling of distrust of other people and their motives, and a lack of faith in humanity. A cynic believes that all people are motivated by ambition, desire, greed, gratification, materialism, and evil intentions.

It is interesting to note that those who hold such views about others often exempt themselves, and believe that they are the only people who act on the basis of morality and higher principles, and that they are right and everyone else is wrong.

Due to a long history of foreign interference and manipulation in some Middle Eastern countries, some politicians and even some ordinary people are very suspicious of the activities of other people, especially big powers, and believe in conspiracy theories.

4- Militarism. At the moment, some of the Middle Eastern countries are among the most militarized states in the world. Israel spends a larger percentage of its GDP on its military than any other country in the world, and the Persian Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, have become the largest arms purchasers. This means of course that funds that should be devoted to development and the wellbeing of the people are diverted towards deadly weapons and the mayhem and destruction that are brought about by their use.

5- Escapism is often the result of totalitarianism, cynicism and militarism. As some people feel that they cannot play an effective role in society and as they do not trust others, they normally retreat from public life and politics and find solace in their own private lives. One aspect of escapism is to take refuge in religious fundamentalism and radicalism and to be attracted to militant and violent ideologies, something that can be seen in the upsurge of terrorism in the region.

Q: In that case, you are very pessimistic about the current situation in the Middle East.

A: Quite the contrary, I am very optimistic about the future of the Middle East. As I mentioned before, it is difficult to find any form of philosophy that applies completely to any Middle Eastern society or for that matter any other society. These are simply some schools of thought that have exerted an influence on regional and international politics, and perhaps some aspects of them also apply to the current situation in the Middle East.

However, the Middle East is on the verge of a great awakening. It is a region of the world that has the highest number of young and educated people. The Middle East has been the cradle of civilization, and over many centuries it has led the world in scientific knowledge, new ideas and philosophies and artistic innovations.

After a couple of centuries of foreign domination and colonialism, Middle Eastern countries are regaining their independence and are undergoing great change. There is every reason to hope that as the result of greater contacts with other civilizations, and becoming part of the new age of information technology and globalisation, in the near future the Middle Eastern nations will again leave all these negative philosophies behind and will rise like a phoenix from the ashes and become leaders in world civilization.

(The interview is conducted by Javad Heirannia)


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