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The Owl’s Cry

Now that the fever for freedom has seized the minds of Arabs and others across the world, the question of what exactly needs to be done is sure to be…

Little Owl
Tony Hisgett

Now that the fever for freedom has seized the minds of Arabs and others across the world, the question of what exactly needs to be done is sure to be the next preoccupation.  The list of demands is obvious across the board—end of corruption and abuse of power, free quality education and health care for all, the right to work (which is, by the way, a human right enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights), a social order based on respect and dignity, and several other rights that may be specific to one community but not to others.

For example, the Moroccan magazine TelQuel recommends a secular constitution for Morocco that doesn’t make Islam the official religion of the state; the absolute end of polygamy and full rights for women; the ability to discuss the royal and military budgets; better wages, unemployment benefits and social security coverage; freedom of religion; freedom of the press; prison reform and the formal abolition of the death penalty; making the darija Morocco’s national language (something I called for years ago); and so on. TelQuel lists 50 items and the reader, I am sure, could add a whole lot more.

The thing to remember, however, is that meaningful sustained reform is going to take time.  Some of these objectives could be implemented in short order, others may take at least a decade, and a number of projects could easily involve the work of generations.  I like to tell people that Morocco will probably be the place of my dreams after I have left this world. I know many opportunities were wasted since 1956 (the year Morocco got its independence), but I also know that no one can bend the arc of time to suit a political agenda. Most change doesn’t happen overnight, and progress depends on the seeds we plant today.  In any case, now that the people’s genie is out in the streets, one thing’s for sure:  There is no going back to the status quo ante.

Do North Africans and people of the Middle East, in general, have an indigenous voice to guide them in their search for a workable formula for good governance—whatever they may choose to call the political system they end up adopting? Do they have a Founding Father, like the Americans Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, to show them the way to a just political system, with freedom and equal opportunity for all? You bet they do. No voice in the world right now can be more powerful and useful in guiding Arabs, Muslims, and—why not?—Americans in their pursuit of freedom than the 14th-century Muslim scholar Abderrahman Ibn Khaldun, not unreasonably described as the father of all the social and economic sciences. Born in Tunis, educated in Fez, and buried in Cairo, there is no comparable person who could speak to all Muslims—whether they be Arab or not—at once.

Ibn Khaldun’s main business was the study of the rise and fall of dynasties and the cycles of history, and so he had a good idea of what political system was the most adequate for a nation’s prosperity and civilization. The chief ingredients for national prosperity and achieving a high status among nations are freedom and justice. A civilization is a fragile thing, in the end, and is maintained only by the free labor of its people. To be motivated to work and create such people need to be secure in their possessions and property, and their labor must at least give them sustenance. Anything beyond sustenance is profit and capital accumulation, which then could be invested in more businesses and projects, and so on.

To Ibn Khaldun, protecting the right to free labor and property is absolutely fundamental to the well being of a nation. The latter rises or falls based on whether its people are free to pursue their best interests and cultivate their passions. The Muslim sage warns repeatedly that a government that acts arbitrarily, confiscates people’s property, and coerces people into degrading labor is one that is that is doomed to fail. Take away the incentive for people to do well and productivity dwindles. The tax base shrinks, so governments, accustomed to big spending, have to confiscate larger chunks of national wealth to stay in power.  Who you know becomes more important than what you do. The economic base grows weaker and more compromised.  Arts and culture retreat and civilized life decays.  Gradually, rulers lose their authority and are eventually pushed aside by new contenders for power.  The cycle of hope and despair begins again.

In the process of thinking about the causes that lead to the rise and fall of dynasties, Ibn Khaldun tells the story of the Persian king Bahram who has been warned by his chief religious dignitary that injustice will lead to his demise.  One day, the king hears an owl’s cry and asks the dignitary about its meaning.  The king’s wise counselor tells him that it is about a female owl asking for twenty ruined villages from a male owl who is seeking her affections. The male owl thinks that such a request is no big deal since it wouldn’t take long for King Bahram, with his unjust social and economic policies privileging a corrupt elite, to make this happen.

King Bahram gets the message. He takes back the land that his sycophants confiscated from productive farmers and restores it to its rightful owners. The farmers go back to work and start producing wealth again.  The economy is revived and all ends up well for the ruler and his people.

The main lesson here is that freedom and justice are the best and only protections any government has against upheavals and uprisings. Free and productive people do not waste time in meaningless protests or demonstrations. It doesn’t matter what form of government is put in place—unleashing the creative genius of the people is the only way to guarantee human satisfaction, political stability, economic prosperity, and build a dynamic civilization.

The wisdom of Ibn Khaldun is haunting us from his grave in Egypt.  We can no longer afford to ignore it.

About the Author

Anouar Majid is editor of Tingis.

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All Comments (1)

  1. An American’s Response to “The Owl’s Cry”

    Anouar Majid’s piece, “The Owl’s Cry” strengthens my belief that truths have no borders when they are founded upon our shared humanity. Cultural responses to these truths may differ, and their specific manifestations may vary widely around the globe, but at some point we all come together in our common yearning for justice and freedom.

    Just as Ibn Khaldun, in the 14th century showed that the prosperity of a nation is based upon the right to free and dignified labor providing at least a basic sustenance and security in the fruits of that labor, so the American founders in the 18th century wrote a constitution in which justice, liberty and the general welfare were among the most important purposes. Yet many centuries earlier, Confucius called upon rulers to be just and to enrich and educate their people, and in the very first civilized society, the people of Uruk cried for relief from Gilgamesh’s tyranny. Although concepts of freedom and justice have changed dramatically over time, a basic sense of what tyranny and injustice are comes through to us with clarity in the great literature of the past.

    Considering the long-standing and almost universal human yearning for justice and freedom, one wonders why they are so difficult to achieve in practice. In the Declaration of Independence, the American founders cited “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as basic human rights, and yet neither women nor African-Americans were viewed as fully equal in the possession of those rights. It took the better part of a century and a civil war to end slavery in the United States, and another century to enact fully into law the concept of racial equality. Women also had to fight long and hard for full rights, and most would say that neither of these struggles is yet fully consummated—all of this in what is arguably the freest, most powerful and most prosperous society on earth.

    The contradictions between ideal and practice that occur in the United States are duplicated in one way or another around the globe—sometimes with less severity and very often with much greater harshness and cruelty. Those who manipulate democracy or, worse, who oppress others in order to have their way, will always fight to maintain the contradictions that keep them in wealth and power. But as Ibn Khaldun made clear, sooner or later they will have to contend with the human quest for freedom and justice.

    Changing ideas of social justice help to explain the differences between ideal and practice. One reason the American founders were able to live with the contradictions enshrined in the original constitutional document is that only very few thinkers of their time had accepted concepts of racial and gender equality. The founders were able to maintain their self-respect while giving in to powerful economic and social forces supporting the institution of slavery because they were men of their time and, in many cases, owned slaves themselves. Human beings, even great ones such as Thomas Jefferson, seldom understand the full implications of the ideas that they advocate, and even less often are they willing to live out those implications.

    One sees in the TelQuel recommendations and the demands of demonstrators across today’s Arab world advanced ideas such as abolition of the death penalty or universal health care. The idea of abolishing the death penalty has been around in western societies since the eighteenth century, and European countries began implementing health-care programs as early as the late nineteenth century, but the United States still wrestles with these issues. As I write, we see efforts in the U.S. to repeal legislation that would bring health care to millions, pathetic and hobbled though it may be because of its attention to preserving the profits of health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. We also see powerful interests in the U.S. manipulating media to secure support for eviscerating labor unions, privatizing and thereby undermining Social Security and cutting deeply into Medicare, the public health plan for the elderly. Thus, the United States struggles to maintain some modicum of social equity.

    What all of this shows is that the coming of democracy is not an event that ends history. Democracy continues a revolutionary struggle for freedom and justice by more peaceful means. Democracy places on the shoulders of the people the weighty obligation to maintain constant vigilance in its defense.

    But if democracy is not final once it is at first secured, certainly securing it does not come in one fell swoop. Securing democracy and all that it entails—justice, freedom, security in person and property, the right to speak and worship freely, and so on—is a process that occurs over time. It is not something that can be imposed, for imposition leads not to democracy but to dictatorship. Democracy must fit into the history and circumstances of the people that seek it. Therefore, it will differ from one country to another. There is no template that fits all.

    At the same time, there are certain requirements that must be accepted if democracy is to have a chance. To have democracy a people must be willing to live together in their diversity of ideas and religious belief. Notions of religious toleration began to gain currency in the wake of Europe’s destructive wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. Europeans began to understand that consciences could not be coerced and that society was strengthened, not weakened, by the toleration religious diversity, even in a state in which there was an established church. The American founders enacted the separation of church and state not only to protect the state from the influence of religion, but also to protect religion from control by the state. Thus, in recognizing that people could not be forced to think alike, democracies grew strong by eliminating religion as a major source of contention. They could now focus on the true business of government which was, in the words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, “…to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity….”

    Now as we in the United States look at our continuing struggles, Ibn Khaldun has much to teach us. More exactly, his ideas remind us of what is important. Our people must have the right to earn a living wage through free and honest work, they must be secure in their property and in the safety of their lives, they must be motivated to work by knowing that if they work they will have the health and wellbeing with which to enjoy the fruits of their labor. These are rights that belong to rich, middle class and poor alike. Those who have the means and the entrepreneurial drive to build and create must be given the freedom and incentive to do so. But society thrives in a balance, and today in the United States it is those in the middle and lower income range whose rights and wellbeing are threatened. The distribution of wealth in the U.S. has, during the last 30 or 40 years, become increasingly skewed in favor of the very wealthy. This trend has, in part, been propelled by global economic changes, but it has also been pushed by tax and regulatory policies, changes in labor law and legal decisions favoring the rich. We are presently experiencing a concerted effort in a number of our states, using the current financial and fiscal crisis as a rationale, to deprive labor unions in the public sector of important aspects of their collective-bargaining rights. If successful, this effort would further weaken the entire labor movement, and the response, predictably, has been major demonstrations. Those who see clearly view the anti-union campaign not only as a threat to the union movement but also as a threat to social and economic stability.

    Some of the wealthy argue that the money they are able to gather is theirs and should not be “confiscated” through progressive taxation to help give a greater measure of security to the vast majority of our people. However, a number of the wealthiest and most enlightened Americans realize that what they have accumulated comes not only from their own hard work and intelligence, but also from their membership in a productive society that benefits from the contributions, large and small, of all its members. These enlightened individuals not only give generously of their wealth for good causes, but they also willingly support taxes and policies that assure for all Americans the benefits of health, education, security and “the general Welfare.”

    In the long run regressive policies favoring the powerful few hurt all of us, and not simply those of modest means. Politicians and their financial backers who seek to undermine the basic elements of a broad-based incentive to work by transferring more and more wealth and power to those who are already wealthy and powerful will, in the end, destroy the social solidarity that holds us together.

    If we undermine our social compact—the implicit agreement that promises fairness in our society—we will, as Khaldun would predict, bring about our demise as a strong and secure democratic republic. The owl cries. Let us take heed.

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