May 27, 2022
The Arab world is at an important historical juncture. The next generation will either create an opportunity for reform that will launch the region into a more prosperous and equitable future or it will witness an accentuation of the retarded development, stunted progress and conflict that have become synonymous with its modern history.
Though the region is too diverse to be coherently treated as a single political entity with one shared experience, there are sufficient similarities with regards to discrepancies in the application of the rule of law, failing education systems and a disposition toward conflict that continue to hold it back. While modern Western developmental models and standards of governance have been applied with limited success, the philosophical and theoretical value of indigenous thinkers has been neglected — and none whose work is more pertinent than Ibn Khaldun.
Abu Zaid Abd Al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun was a leading 14th-century scholar who rigorously theorized the dialectical relations between the state, authority and legitimacy. A sociologist, philosopher, political scientist and historian, his work is most commonly known as a precursive foundation of what would later become known as historiography, demography and sociology. Despite having informed the celebrated later works of Machiavelli and Hegel, his influence is all too often overlooked.
Though contested by some parties, the broad understanding is that the 20th century was a time of great tumult for the Arab world, torn between east and west and struggling with identity and the role of religion, alongside economic struggles. The region bears the scars. These challenges have been compounded by the revolutions of the 21st century and the ever-tightening noose of rising temperatures. Given that the efforts of scores of political scientists to address these issues have been compromised at best, looking at the prescriptive aspects of Ibn Khaldun’s treatises is a more applicable model for policymakers.
Nowhere is Ibn Khaldun’s theory more appropriate today than in the case of his native Tunisia. Faced with spiraling global commodity prices, public debt at more than 100 percent of gross domestic product and public protests, Tunisia has no choice but to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. President Kais Saied’s government has thus far resisted the move, as the $4 billion bailout would require a freeze on the public sector wage bill, subsidy reforms and a restructuring of publicly owned companies.
In a country like Tunisia, where the average household income is $130 per month, the idea that the state could scale back on its subsidies and responsibilities to the public is inconceivable. Though the IMF could force reforms in the short term, it would merely delay the political fallout from a resultant increase in the cost of living. Much as a 37 percent rise in food prices preceded the Arab Spring, top-down emergency fiscal measures issued from Washington would exacerbate existing tensions.
Nowhere is Ibn Khaldun’s theory more appropriate today than in the case of his native Tunisia
Zaid M. Belbagi
Modern Tunisia has consistently struggled to feed and serve its growing population, amid a coup, a revolution and, most recently, the counterrevolution. However, when employing Ibn Khaldun’s model, this challenge is less perplexing. His concept of “asabiyyah” (social cohesion) concerning the ties of kinship that held tribal societies together was cleaved apart by Tunisia’s experience of colonialism and was replaced by the modern republic. Where the tribe, then the Ottomans, the local bey and then France provided central authority and, with it, fiscal direction, what had been bound together by long-departed parties was subsumed by the state. Where this responsibility could have allowed for indigenous growth, strongman rule encouraged a weak yet bloated state, leading to corruption at the expense of economic development.
Ibn Khaldun outlined the centrality of value-adding processes to the prosperity of any state. In Tunis, though civic society and female literacy are among the more advanced in the Arab world, the skills and infrastructure to make good on the country’s competitive advantages in human capital, geography and climate have been lacking. Today, almost one in five of the country’s 11 million people are unemployed. The balance between “profit” and “sustenance” that Ibn Khaldun analyzed has not been respected and in Tunis, like elsewhere in the Arab world, only a select group have profited.
In “Al-Muqaddimah,” Khaldun states: “Civilization and its well-being, as well as business prosperity, depend on productivity and people’s efforts in all directions in their own interest and profit.” A business environment that limits productivity and favors graft was, for Ibn Khaldun, bound to decay. This is exacerbated in Tunis, where new elites, just as the barbarians of Ibn Khaldun’s theories, have extended their control of the modern state, economically and politically, encouraging inefficient practices.
Ibn Khaldun argued that the purpose of law is the creation of justice. To this end, he saw the state as a necessary evil to restrain excesses and injustice. “Government is an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself,” he wrote. His emphasis on this principle was that civilization, the highest form of human achievement, required a set of rules and regulations to ensure a harmonious and orderly society. These rules were called Al-Adab Al-Sultaniyya (the ordinances of government) and they outlined the necessity of adherence by both the state and the people to achieve a degree of societal functionality.
Given that the purpose of rules and regulations is to govern and regulate human actions, it is no surprise that, as the rule of law faltered in Tunisia from the late 1980s and the country witnessed the excesses of spiraling security forces and endemic corruption, it simultaneously began to slide on developmental indexes.
The example of Tunisia today goes some way toward outlining the importance of respecting Ibn Khaldun’s basic principles when looking at governance in the Arab world. Writing after seven key centuries, which witnessed both the great triumphs and catastrophes of Arab civilization, he provided a very important summary of the relationship between people and the state, as well as the interplay between religion, economics and government.
Despite different historical realities, arguably the most relevant of Ibn Khaldun’s work for the Arab world today remains his analysis of sedentary and nomadic peoples, as well as modern Arab state violence and its articulation with authority and legitimacy. The experience of rapid urbanization has created significant societal trauma across the Arab world and the disconnect between rural attitudes and principles and the faceless modernity of economic development has encouraged disparity, religious extremism and unemployment.
Where new states were created along the lines of asabiyyah, the psychological, sociological, economic and political changes brought on by settlement have created circumstances in which citizens expect the state to fill the void of the tribe. And true to Ibn Khaldun’s model, bloated bureaucracies have been created as a result. Ibn Khaldun should be in every Arab curriculum.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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