No matter what season it is in Arab politics, spring or winter, there is one near certainty since time immemorial: Arab politics teeter on the fine line separating Bedouin savagery and some form of authoritarian order.
In such a world, democracy is another word for mobocracy. This is what we have been witnessing behind the hyperbole of Arab spring breaking out in jasmine and roses.
None understood this culture of Arab politics better, and described it with a clarity that has withstood the ravages of time, than Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406).
The Muqaddimah or “An Introduction to History” written in 1377 was Ibn Khaldun’s first, or introductory, book to his multi-volume universal history. In it, Ibn Khaldun laid out his descriptive method and analytical approach to studying man, social order, and how civilization prospers and decays.
The highly reputed British historian-philosopher Arnold Toynbee, in describing The Muqaddimah, wrote it remains “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”
In the opening sections of The Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun described the characteristics of the desert people, or the Bedouins. There is no finer account ever written of these people than that penned by Ibn Khaldun.
“Bedouins are a savage nation, fully accustomed to savagery and the things that cause it,” observed Ibn Khaldun. “Savagery has become their character and nature. … Such a natural disposition is the negation and antithesis of civilization.”
Of what this meant, Ibn Khaldun noted, was “how civilization always collapsed in places Bedouins took over and conquered. … The Yemen where Bedouins live is in ruins. Persian civilization in the Arab Iraq is likewise completely ruined. The same applies to contemporary Syria.”
Let us fast-forward from Ibn Khaldun to T.E. Lawrence in the 20th century, and the man who organized and led the Arab Revolt during the First World War.
Lawrence belonged to that strange group of Englishmen and Europeans who loved the desert, and romanticized its inhabitants. His memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a classic, and after Ibn Khaldun’s writings perhaps the most astute account of Arabs he encountered.
“Arabs could be swung on an idea as a cord,” wrote Lawrence. “Then the idea was gone and the work ended — in ruins.”
The opening chapters of Seven Pillars are an indispensable study of the people Lawrence led, and who continue to bewilder the West by their politics.
“They were a people of starts,” Lawrence described, “for whom the abstract was the strongest motive, the process of infinite courage and variety, and the end nothing. They were as unstable as water, and like water would perhaps finally prevail.”
Ibn Khaldun was an Arab, and undoubtedly one of the greatest Arab thinkers.
Lawrence was an outsider, but probably none lived, loved and devoted himself to an Arab cause as he did.
They understood and wrote what today few would dare write, given the burden of political correctness, in explaining the vagary of Arab politics.
Eventually, just maybe, Arabs might learn from others sufficiently, and find for themselves the balance between savagery and civilization. But for now their Bedouin characteristics are in flood-tide.