Democracy and the Concept of Asabiyyah
By Uthman Shodipe
It was the wise Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the Tunisian philosopher and restless polymath of the Middle Age who first gave universal reckoning and dialectical signification to the Arab concept of Asabiyyah as an integral signpost of societal cyclical pattern. In its raw, intrinsic, pre-Islamic articulation, Asabiyyah implies bonding, an integral cohesion, a communal attestation to a shared common cause and the protection of the common interest.
Asabiyyah is about the collective lock-step in inherent values and visions with a predication to maintain and promote the unifying spirit and the absolute concerted force of the communal relationship. Simply, Asabiyyah is a fierce resolve and testimony to rally behind a common truth, to pronounce a common will at any cost.
It is a parochial, inherently exclusive principle which counsels factional identity in negation of a larger canvas, thus perceiving the world from a jaundiced prism of partisan interest. It is a herd instinct, a deliberate circling of the wagon to erect the protective cordon of the faithful; contained and controlled against the intrusions of the uninitiated.
It is this verity which the ancient potentates had invoked in compelling authority to cobble their kingdoms and mould allegiances that Ibn Khaldun widened and reinforced as the pivotal political theory of the cyclical motions in the rise and fall of powers. In his classical theory about the twists and turns of empires and all allied governmental institutions, the philosopher holds that the apparatus of power is often sustained by a deliberate policy of cultivated bands of sworn loyalists, rigid partisans, unreflective gang of acolytes and fierce courtiers whose sole fixity is to obey and protect the subsisting order.
While the partisans passionately abide with the spirit and the summative, ringing thematic largeness of the new power without debate or the slightest contention, it is the duty of the leadership to distribute patronage, to guide and protect the restricted nucleus of courtiers and acolytes who stand in watchful attentiveness over the common interest. The philosopher insists that this pseudo patriarchal cronyism will gain endurance and sustainability as long as the adherents preserve the original bonding facilities, the very innate force that galvanized the common interest.
But the ascendancy of power invariably erodes the original spontaneity of common focus. It distorts the unifying emblem, rivens the once solid platform of the collective front, exposing the narrow gravitations towards the protection of individual privileges and the advantages of positions. In this weakness and in this fixity on aggressive greed, the howlers at the distant outpost of fortune, the screaming disadvantaged horde once elbowed out would crash at the gate of power with clubs and bayonet, determined to overthrow the decayed power.
And thus the fortunes of primeval entities are tossed about in grim cyclical order, with each reign held only by the watchfulness of time-servers, and invariably susceptible to withering and decay, vulnerable to the superior battering of the new barbarians at the gate. Ibn Khaldun who himself was a master in unhinged loyalty, adept in swift switching of allegiances in the treacherous courts of the old Araby, argued that the narrow provincialism of Asabiyyah is the defining template of human historiography, the pivot of the chronicles of human association.
In asserting what he perceived as the guiding normative pattern of Asabiyyah especially among the nomadic tribes of the desert, the philosopher’s contention was guided by the primordial temptings of the early human predications of basic survival without the restraints of higher comprehension, without the all inclusive values of excellence; stripped of fairness and equitable balance.
Asabiyyah may be valid as the fundamental instinct of an uncertain civilization fraught with the imbalances of tumult and the terrors of a chaotic order where there are no agreed codifications in the governance of the state, where there are no tempering values of merit and justice, where there are no defining principles of the constituents of right and wrong.
But beyond the dark, unreasoning and capricious latitudes of the Middle Age, the concept of Asabiyyah becomes tenuous and brittle, devoid of acceptable civilized standard. It runs at variance with the normative gauge of enlightened values of democratic appropriateness; the creed of ethical leadership, the cultivation of merit, the insistent on equity, the tolerance of plural contributions and the contemplative guidance in the steering of the state.
Such higher values of human engagement cannot be traded for the banal promotion of cronyism, factional suasion, tribal gravitations and puerile, clannish platforms. Democracy cannot be etched in mongrelized half- measures with the quaint oddities of the courtier and the loyalist band structures jostling with the balanced nuances of democratic restraint and ethical purity. It is either one or the other.
But here in this isle, in this present illogic, we are desperately conflicted between the feudal proclivities of Asabiyyah and the elevated signposts of the democratic guidance. We are frozen now in a mulish insistence of brazen withdrawal into the primordial tent of native loyalists and ancestral courtiers; the sickening fixity on cultivating and elevating the clannish creed, the consistent mustering of provincial agenda, the base, indifferent focus on narrow truths, the sheer, heedless delusions in long abandoned and discredited atavistic inclinations.
Democracy is never about the spectacle of absolute wisdom residing somewhere in some infallible quarters. It is always about a corporate steering of the rudder of the state. It is about reciprocity and countervailing balance. It is about mutual felicity and concomitant respect. It is about the shared vision on a larger tableau; the constant debate and plural contributions until a settled arrival at a given consensus.
While the concept of Asabiyyah captured the fundament of a tentative civilization with all its grim jarrings and all its disruptive illustrations, its validity is in the past and its tenure perhaps reposes in the unrefined recesses of human susceptibilities. Nothing here diminishes the prodigious scholarship of Ibn Khaldun, a man whose sweeping giantism rivals the attainments of Plato, Aristotle and Giambattista Vico, the great Italian rhetorician and political philosopher who came 300 years after him.
It is most fitting and ironic that the liberating seeds of the Arab Spring which broke upon the world in December 2010 first erupted on the streets of Tunis, the ancestral provenance of Ibn Khaldun. Naturally, the rebellion that raced from the desert to the sea was a violent resentment against the ravages of Asabiyyah which had held down the people for several decades.
Moral: Enlightenment has now vaulted man far beyond the restrictive compass of tribal gravitation and factional withdrawal as a defining template of governance. It’s now either the wide embrace of plural contributions or the abject sinking into the narrow, divisive cordon of Asabiyyah with all its grim uncertainties.