The Muslim scholar theorised history as being a cyclical rise and fall of dynasties and civilisations.
The biggest threat to America today is not China. It’s not Iran and it’s not North Korea. The biggest threat to America today, undoubtedly, is its own self and a 14th-century Muslim scholar can help us understand why.
Ibn Khaldun is most famous for his masterpiece, the Muqadimmah, which literally means “the Introduction” – intended as the introduction for his larger volume on history.
Ibn Khaldun heavily criticised the traditional Islamic histories, which saw themselves as responsible only to record dates, names and lineages. As such, he aimed to introduce in the Muqadimmah a new science which would not only record history but would analyse its universal patterns and the basic principles upon which all human societies operate.
The end result is that Ibn Khaldun was the world’s first true social scientist, with the Muqadimmah widely credited for being the first in a long list of fields such as sociology, historiography, Keynesian economics, and demography. No less than former US President Ronald Reagan quoted him as the first supply-side economist.
Reagan aside, what does any of this have to do with America?
Ibn Khaldun theorised history as being a cyclical rise and fall of dynasties and civilisations. He saw the key to this rise and fall as the concept of asabiyya.
While observing the history of his own native North Africa, Ibn Khaldun noticed a constant pattern of tribal outsiders overthrowing a decaying urban dynasty. He credited this as being due to the tribal people’s superior asabiyya.
Asabiyya can be usefully thought of as “inter-group solidarity” or “social cohesion.” This mutual feeling of solidarity allows for a group to present a united front and make the necessary sacrifices for their collective benefit. It is the feeling that makes individuals stop seeing themselves as individuals, but rather as members of a collective.
Ibn Khaldun, however, is clear that though the group perceives their descent from a common ancestor to bind them together, what really creates and keeps asabiyya between people is social familiarity and interaction.
In fact, he explicitly mentions that these feelings of solidarity can extend even to clients or allies even while not sharing in the tribe or dynasty’s descent, but still share in their asabiyya due to their frequent close contact. The implication of this is that while asabiyya may have been originally inspired by the ethnic bonds of tribal peoples, it can usefully be expanded to any political collective.
This of course begs the crucial question: how does a group lose asabiyya?
All good things must come to an end
The natural result of asabiyya is that the group aims to dominate others and achieve political rule. However, it is asabiyya reaching its end goal that marks the beginning of the end.
Ibn Khaldun theorised that dynasties and polities just like human beings have natural life spans. Furthermore like human beings, there are certain factors that can either lengthen or shorten a polity’s lifetime.
As the new dynasty leaves the desert and occupies the city and its seat of power, it becomes enthralled with luxury. The more seduced by luxury, the more unjust the dynasty becomes as it increasingly raises taxes (with less and less productivity) and subverts property rights to fund its new proclivities. As they do so, the elite becomes weak, divided and more preoccupied with enriching themselves than actual governance.
While we may no longer live in a world in which desert nomads regularly overthrow urban dynasties, we do still live in a world where social bonds determine a political organisation’s health. And given the current amount of vitriol and polarisation in America’s political discourse, it should be clear to all: America has lost its asabiyya.
The United States has developed an elite straight out the pages of the Muqadimmah.
Increasingly, the elite live in the same places and go to the same private schools, the same Ivy Leagues, and later work in the same corporate or government jobs.
On the government level, America increasingly transforms towards a corporate state as public and private power blurs. Lawmakers increasingly do not even read the legislation literally written by corporations and often retire by working for lobbying groups for the same industries they once regulated.
The average Joe does not understand the complex means by which politicians and corporations legalise all this. But they do know a rigged game when they see one.
The result? For years, less than a fifth of all Americans have trusted the government to do what is right.
Trump then became the Republican candidate not in spite of, but because of his open mocking of America’s most well-established political institutions. In the minds of many of his supporters, those institutions never served them in the first place.
From there, given the choice between the two most unpopular candidates in all of American history, voters in three crucial states with tiny margins chose the candidate they disliked but didn’t know, over the candidate they disliked and knew all too well.
Divided we fall
Four years later, Biden’s campaign has consistently made a simple argument “Elect our candidate, heal the nation.” Recently, Biden couldn’t have picked a more symbolically potent place to reiterate this message: one of the most famous battlefields of the American Civil War, Gettysburg.
While this is brilliant electoral signalling, they are wrong, because their diagnosis of the problem is wrong.
Trump has consistently exacerbated the degree of polarisation in America to his own electoral benefit, but he did not create it.
Trump may be a perfect manifestation of everything Democrats think is wrong with the country, but he is not the cause of America’s problems. Ibn Khaldun reminds us that he is but an exacerbation of pre-existing symptoms.
It’s clear. No matter who wins the election, America has lost its asabiyya.
Thomas Parker is currently conducting his MA in Civilization Studies at Ibn Haldun University. His interests include Ottoman History and Islamic Political Thought, while studying Islamic sciences.
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