A view from Israel: Ibn Khaldoun’s theory

Even in the 14th century, Ibn Khaldoun was on the mark about the rise and fall of nations.

Ibn Khaldoun statue 521 (photo credit: Creative Commons)
Ibn Khaldoun statue 521
(photo credit: Creative Commons)
How the Arab Spring will conclude, and whether this is just the beginning of a century-long process, is anyone’s guess. As time passes, and as the harmful elements of Islam are increasingly allowed entry into the upper echelons of government, the possibility of freedom and democracy increasingly fades. Will liberty and justice reign? Or will religious, sectarian or tribal divisions drive each country to extremism and even possibly splinter countries into smaller, self-ruled areas? At this point, it is difficult to determine, but looking at the countries that surround Israel, some worrying signs are beginning to appear.
Fourteenth century Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldoun made the observation that at their peak of influence, empires are brought down by small groups of fanatics, leading to a period of decay. The rise and fall of nations occurs in a constant cycle of eminence and decadence.
Over the centuries, since the rise of Islam, caliph after caliph rose and fell, each one briefly reveling in his triumph only to be murdered and replaced by another as tribal egos flared and ruthlessness held no bounds. Since the time of Muhammad’s successor Abu Bakr, caliph, sultan and dictator engaged in warfare not only with foreigners and other religions, but among themselves as well.
AND IN the last 1,400 or so years, nothing has changed.
Jordan’s King Abdullah I, Iraq’s King Faisal II and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat were all assassinated.
King Farouk of Egypt was forced to abdicate thanks to an ambitious young colonel named Gamal Abdul Nasser.
Supposedly, according to Robert Payne’s The History of Islam, during Israel’s War of Independence, one of Nasser’s friends said to him just before being killed, “The greatest battlefield is in Egypt.”
Today, this dead man’s words appear to ring strikingly true. With the downfall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, though not by small groups of radicals, and with the very real possibility of a rise in extremism and a non-tolerant version of Islam, religious division threatens to tear the country apart and may impact on what follows in other faltering Arab countries as well. What once was the leading Arab country to which all other Arab leaders turned for guidance, has now become a model for what a future Middle East may resemble.
In her book Passion for Islam, Caryle Murphy writes, “Perhaps no other Arab country is as pivotal for the future of Middle-Eastern Christians as Egypt. Its Christian population, most of whom belong to the indigenous Coptic Orthodox Church, is the largest in the Arab world.”
Though Murphy, like many others, excuses Arab fanaticism and anger by blaming perceived “Arab feelings of powerlessness and humiliation” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the truth is that Muslims have long engaged in religious, sectarian and tribal warfare among themselves.
The Arab world’s problems stem from within.
Today, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain face division along religious sectarian lines while Yemen and Libya face division across tribal lines.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose family belongs to the minority Alawite sect, continues to brutally murder his own countrymen for the crime of being Sunni Muslims. According to the latest numbers from the United Nations, approximately 2,600 innocent civilians have been murdered.
If it is the case that these countries will prove unable to agree on a central government under which all groups and tribes will subsist, does the possibility exist wherein new “tribal states” will form? Will the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain or the Sunni majority in Syria try to form a separatist state for themselves? Many of the existing Arab countries, including Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, were created more out of loyalty considerations than any other reason. There is no actual reason that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan exists other than the fact that they were favored by the British and thus given a tract of land to call their own.
After all, in 1916, the Middle East was carved out by none other than two young negotiators, Mark Sykes and Charles François Georges- Picot, not only on the basis of the McMahon- Hussein correspondence that outlined the basic, vague, regions Arabs could declare independent, but by determining who was loyal to the Allies during WWI.
With no strong historical connection to the land itself and no real historical basis for the existing government, what’s to stop separatist groups from attempting to split from formerly dictatorial cultures and create their own selfgoverned mini-state? THE PAN-ARAB idea from the early 20th century never took off for the simple reason that the amount of internal division within the Arab world would never have allowed it.
Contrary to the belief that Arab grievances stem from Western imperialism, it is the Arab countries themselves that have never managed to resolve internal divisions.
Even then, centuries ago, Ibn Khaldoun was on the mark about the rise and fall of nations.
His emphasis on the importance of internal consensus and social solidarity leads us to question whether Egypt, Libya and Syria as well as other countries, including even possibly Morocco, Iran and Saudi Arabia, will fall into a period of “decay.” And with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to tout himself as the new leader of the Muslim world, what ramifications will this have for Israel and the West? What is obvious is that if the Arab Spring revolutions are to have any long-lasting, positive effect, the Arab world will need to undergo a change in mind-set and culture.
True democracies must rise where dictators have fallen, and liberty and justice must cut across all religious, sectarian and tribal lines, for any of these revolutions to prove meaningful.
To Ibn Khaldoun, this process could take decades, if not centuries.