Mon 14 May 2007
I am not an expert on the Palestine issue, nor am I trained to think in the apocalyptic terms sometimes engaged by pundits who forget that political science is more often an art or even impure fiction than a replicable analytical technique. But the ongoing in-fighting between Hamas (the neo-bad guys) and Fatah (the paleo-bad guys) is too intriguing to pass up. Today’s BBC News has a comparison of the two parties, following the resignation of the interior minister. Much of the speculation in the media is about tactics: Will Hamas ever give up support of violent acts against Israelis? Will Israel stubbornly refuse to negotiate with a group it would rather see fade into oblivion? Will the United States promote this democratic experiment as a bridge or a barrier on the so-called road map to peace? In all this I cannot help but think about what the famous 14th century North African savant Ibn Khaldun would have said if he could be interviewed from the grave for the New Tunis Times. It might go something like this…
NTT: “It is an honor, Mr. Bin Khaldun, to meet a man who some Western scholars think was the Arab intellectual precursor of the sociologists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, the economist Adam Smith and the Italian courtesan Nicoli Machiavelli.”
IK: “Actually, it is Ibn Khaldun, my friend. I am not yet ready to be cast into the Bin of discarded Islamic icons. And in my day and age we had no Misters and certainly nowhere near the number of mistresses to be imagined in a futuristic Montesquieu’s Paris. I am only a humble scholar who has written a simple introduction to the study of history. If these other lesser lights you mention plagiarize what I wrote, it is none of my affair.”
NTT: “My apologies, Sir.”
IK: “Again, you seem not to know much about my world. I was neither sired nor ‘Sir-ed’ in Tunis, where my family lived, or Cairo, where I taught for a spell. As a scholar the library floor and where I laid my quill became my home.”
NTT: “Perhaps you have a view on the current strife in Palestine, where an avowedly militant group called Hamas won an impressive victory at the polls in the last election. What do you think will happen next?
IK: “I do not claim to be expert on 21st century history, and I must admit my surprise that the world has lasted this long without an apocalyptic end to the misery humans bring upon themselves and the rest of the world Allah created. But even in the grave I have heard that your modern problem stems from the occupation creating the powerful state of Israel and its subsequent taking of territory from surrounding Arab states. I am told that some Israeli politicians, if not the majority, view Hamas as little more than a bunch of wild Bedouin nomads. For them nomads are rough, savage and uncultured, and their presence is always inimical to civilization. Obviously they have a Hebrew translation of my thesis on Bedouins, some six centuries earlier. However, I believe that at its core the people who support Hamas are hardy, frugal, uncorrupt in morals, freedom-loving and self-reliant, and so would make excellent fighters for a just cause. In addition, they have a strong sense of the solidarity I call ‘asabiya.”
NTT: “I am not sure what ‘asabiya means. Can you translate that into modern terms?
IK: “Well, I am not sure it still exists after the onslaught of economics-as-usury capitalism and the wall-to-wall carpet-bagging capitalism of Walmart. But you might think of it as ‘group cohesion’ or ‘social solidarity.’ Look, my friend, Western-oriented urban centers like Tel Aviv are the seats of the crafts, the sciences, the arts and so-called high culture. Yet secular luxury corrupts many Israelis, and as a result they see opposition as a liability to the state, even women and children who are reduced to throwing rocks at tanks. Then comes along a group of angry people almost out of nowhere. Morality is completely relaxed and the arts of defending justice and of negotiating with the enemy are forgotten, so they are no match for voting extremists.”
NTT: “I am not quite sure I understand that last point. How will Hamas assume power, since the Israeli state is not about to be obliterated by rhetoric?
IK: “If we think of Hamas as nomads who conquer the minds of ordinary people, remember that their elected leaders establish a new political dynasty. At first the new rulers retain their Islamic virtues and solidarity, but soon they seek to concentrate all authority in their own hands. Increasingly they rule through a bureaucracy of clients, perhaps taking money from other conservative Islamist groups. As their former supporters lose their moral suasion there is an increasing use of the secular political process, and getting elected comes to be more important than proper ruling. Luxury corrupts ethical life, and the population of support decreases. Rising expenditure demands higher taxes, which discourage production and eventually result in lower revenues.
TNN: “Are you saying you support a conservative approach like Reaganomics?”
IK: “Well Adam Smith took my idea of an invisible hand underlying all modes of production, with some hands perhaps less invisible than others. But the problem is not so much with trickle down economics as it is with trickle down politics, when elected officials skim off the people’s wealth and live in expensive villas; this is probably why Fatah was voted out of office.
TNN: “So what happens next in the process?”
IK: “The elected officials of Hamas or any newly emerging party and their clients become isolated from the groups that originally brought them to power. The inevitable process of decline is taken to last three generations, or about one hundred and twenty years, about as long as it took Noah, peace be upon him, to build the ark. Religion is a major influence on the nature of such a model; when ‘asabiya is reinforced by religion its strength is multiplied, and great empires can be founded. This is what both Hamas and the Iranian ayatollahs are counting on. The theory is that religion can also reinforce the cohesion of an established state. Yet the endless cycle of flowering and decay shows no evolution or progress except for that from the primitive form of violence against civilians to a civilized parliament where words replace bullets. Although the damage may be as bad in the end.”
TNN: “So do you really think it will take three generations or one hundred and twenty years before the crisis between the Palestinians and Israel is resolved?”
IK: “As I noted, some scholars suggest that is how long it took Noah to build his ark. As a medieval rationalist, I would not say this, but consider the complications in the process of addressing deep-seated wrongs when all sides feel aggrieved. It can be noted that those people who live a life of abundance and have all the good things to eat, die more quickly than others when a drought, famine or stringent government security comes upon them. This was the case, as I know well from seven centuries ago, with the Berbers of the Maghrib and the inhabitants of the city of Fez, and as we hear, of Cairo. It is not so with the Palestinian Arabs who inhabit waste regions and deserts, or with the present day inhabitants of Ifriqiyah (Libya) whose principal income is from oil. When an air strike strikes them, it does not kill as many of them as of the other group of people, and few, if any, die of hunger. Those who die in famines are victims of their previous habitual state of satiation, not of the hunger that now afflicts them for the first time.”
NTT: “But why does it take so long for change?”
IK: “Think of it this way. Prestige is an accident that affects human beings. It comes into being and decays inevitably. No human being exists who possesses an unbroken pedigree of nobility from Adam down to himself. Nobility originates in the state of being outside. That is, being outside of leadership and nobility and being in a base, humble station, devoid of prestige, as is the case with every created thing. But this reaches its end in a single political party within four successive generations. This is as follows: The builders of the party’s glory know what it costs them to do the work, and keep the qualities that created past glory and made it last. The candidates who come after had personal contact with these founders and thus learned those things from them. However, the future candidate is inferior to the earlier in this respect, inasmuch as a person who learns things through study is inferior to a person who knows them from practical application. The third generation must be content with imitation and negative attack ads on the media and, in particular, with reliance upon a very narrow view of tradition. These future party members are inferior to those of the second generation, inasmuch as a person who relies upon tradition is inferior to a person who exercises judgment. The fourth generation, then, is inferior to the preceding ones in every respect. Its members have lost the qualities that preserved the party platform of their prior glory. They imagine that the earlier principles were not built through application and effort. They think that it was something due to their specific view of religion from the very beginning by virtue of the mere fact of their descent, and not something that resulted from group effort and individual qualities. For they see the great respect in which the newly elected leader is held by the people, but eventually the future leader does not know how that respect originated and what the reason for it was. He, for I doubt Hamas will elect a woman as leader in the near future, imagines it is due to his party descent and nothing else. He keeps away from those in whose group feeling he shares, thinking that he is better than they. This is the way of all flesh.”
TNN: Were you the first to say “the way of all flesh.”
IK: “No, I read it in a Maureen Dowd op-ed piece last week. “
Daniel Martin Varisco
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.