Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Conflict Resolution à la Asabiyyah: Ibn Khaldun is back

In Guest Blogger, Intellectual History on April 15, 2010 at 9:14 am

This is a special day here at Confrontations. We have the first example of a guest contributor who is using this platform to publish scholarly ideas from his own research about conflict. Today, Mohammed Cherkaoui has provided us with a précis of his exciting arguments about a social science concept that is sorely overlooked in our Europhile culture from the great historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun. The concept, Asabiyyah, is not what one would call forgotten, but it has certainly been underexploited given our current fascination with identity formation and ethnic conflict. What excites me about the idea is that it has a vector quality–it goes somewhere–and as Richard Rubenstein has said, it helps us to understand how identities bring people together rather than simply tear them apart. Before we become starry eyed with the idea, we should remember that Ibn Khaldun was prompted in his efforts to understand the era of the Arab Conquests, which were anything but peaceful. Even still, it is exciting to place this classic idea back in play where it belongs. If one can cite Plato, Hobbes and Rousseau in one’s work, why not Ibn Khaldun? Let this serve as an invitation offered to us by soon to be Doctor Cherkaoui.

What drives social change toward conflict? This is probably the main challenge in addressing what nurtures intra-state conflicts, and why sub-groups rebel and claim a separatist identity and politics in the pursuit of some ethnocentric needs.

In a post-Weberan world, the puzzle remains about how to “interpret the meaning of social action and thereby give a causal explanation of the way in which the action proceeds and the effects which it produces.” So far, theorists have offered partial answers only, and have not addressed the whole puzzle. This undermines the multi- and inter-disciplinary claim of Conflict Resolution in dealing with complex conflicts.

The highly-acclaimed identity turn in social sciences, guided by the Basic Human Needs advocacy, has focused on the ‘universality’ and static nature of those needs; but has not probed into what energizes those needs over time, between high and low points of demand. Tajfel’s illustration of the movement from the extreme of ‘social mobility’ to the extreme of ‘social change’ does not explain the fragmentation of the ‘We-cohesion’, neither does it capture the power shifts. Similarly, Parsons’s theory of Social Systems was unsatisfactory in its attempt to provide a connecting force between culture, personality, and the social systems.

Carl Schmitt narrowed the dynamism of social change to the ‘supremacy’ of the ‘Political’, beyond the economic and cultural domains, since it is, as he argues, “most essential to identity”. Foucault reveals how power establishments prevent resistance against the state, but does not close the circle by defining how the powerless can make a quantum leap into collective opposition to discursive power. Giddens’s structuration theory implies a rather cyclical concept of social transformation, induced by an unsettled structure-agency interaction, with no definite beginning or end.

We are left wondering, why do we now see more identity-based conflicts? We continue to wonder because we have not studied the “real state of affairs” in human society, as phrased by Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). His still-unexplored theory of Asabiyyah (social feeling) is a multi-layered conviction of social bondage and shared psychohistory. He explained how this complex term encompasses both the cohesive force of the group, the conscience that it has its own specificity and collective aspirations, and the tensions that animate it ineluctably to seek power. Accordingly, Asabiyyah is what puts social groups on hegemonic Steroids, and makes individuals feel powerful at a particular point in time.

Asabiyyah was a familiar term in the pre-Islamic era, but became popularized in Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (Introduction) where it is described as the fundamental bond of human society and the basic motive force of history. The twentieth-century doyen of British historians, Arnold J. Toynbee, has called this volume as “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”

As a reflexive thinker and jurist wandering along the Mediterranean basin to ground ‘Umran,’ a new ‘science’ of society, within the broader field of philosophical inquiry, Ibn Khaldun was reflecting on his dynamical systems theory of societies with a trajectory of their social, economic, and political decline. Being considered the ‘last Greek’, he was “heir to Greek philosophical thought that encompassed the works of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, the neo-Platonists, Ptolemy, and Galen”, according to Stephen Dale.

Why Asabiyyah now? This concept seems to anticipate modern conceptions of social capitol arising in social networks, and contextualize social change in time, space, and human conscience. I argue for the rediscovery of this theory for four reasons:

1. Asabiyyah, as group feeling, is not a subject-based concept but a process of identification with the collective at a strategic time. It is the state of mind that makes individuals’ identify with a group and subordinate their own personal interests to the group interest. This strong feeling implies a sense of self-empowerment with the collective. Unlike the Andersonian concept of imagined communities, Asabiyyah entails the psychological process of identification with ‘Us’, in conjunction with ‘They’, with a sense of internalized communities. It also captures the dynamics of identity politics, power, and the contestation of hegemonic discourses between fading and emerging social groups, political systems, and civilizations.

2. Asabiyyah is not an interest-based theory. It goes beyond the cost-and-benefit assumption among individuals when they join new social movements and advocate alternative worldviews. Despite the practice of de-development and increasing relative deprivation in Gaza, many Palestinians maintain their solidarity with Hamas despite the temptation of foreign aid and political support for its rival Fatah.

3. Ibn Khaldun’s methodology was based on the ‘mant.iq’, the logic of Aristotle. It entailed a “complex interactive dynamic of inductive and deductive reasoning” informed at all times by personal experience and an encyclopedic knowledge of the differences in time and place in world history.

4. Above all, Asabiyyah offers a temporal understanding of social change. When a dominant Asabiyyah declines, another more compelling may take its place; thus, civilizations rise and fall, and history describes these cycles of Asabiyyah as they play out. Ibn Khaldun argues that each dynasty (or civilization) has within itself the seeds of its own downfall.

In short, Asabiyyah calls for the study social change in the context of time, space, and contestation of power between aging and emerging political players. It also offers the most dynamic and complex perspective that is warranted by dynamic and complex conflicts.

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  1. […] is a belated (on my part) post form our own Mohammed Cherkaoui, who returns to Confrontations with another fascinating piece on an important Arab thinker, this one more recently departed. Mohammed’s […]

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