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.