In my previous article, I extracted pieces of advice for today’s leaders from “Siyasatnama” (The Book of Government), a book by Nizam al-Mulk, who has a very important place in the Turkish statehood tradition.
Today, I would like to discuss the lessons for the class of political leaders from Ibn Khaldun, who argues that states or powers, just like living organisms, go through the phases of birth, development, stagnation and death.
Writing his famous book, “Muqaddimah” (Prolegomenon), 700 years before Paul Kennedy wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” and 300 years before Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu came up with the notion of the separation of powers, Ibn Khaldun developed still-holding sociopolitical theses and he came to be considered the true founder of sociology. His long name is Abd al-Rahman bin Muhammad bin Muhammad bin Muhammad bin Al-Hasan, and though he lived between 1332 and 1406, his supra-historical approaches in “Muqaddimah” still apply today. For instance, in the first book of “Muqaddimah,” Ibn Khaldun explains how political decisions that do not rely on sound intelligence may cause the destruction of a state or power and this is a universal truth. Now, let me give the floor to Ibn Khaldun for his observations, which have so far been proven right numerous times:
“Lies and forged information, naturally, knock on the door of news [read as intelligence and information]. Information is tainted with lies. There are reasons why information is tainted with lies. One reason is partisanship for ideas and sects (ideologies). This is because if a person adopts a state of moderation when s/he hears and accepts the information, s/he will examine the information properly and ponders on until the truth gleans and is distinguished from lies. When an idea, sect or belief is tainted with partisanship, man tends to accept the information that he finds suitable. Partisanship or adherence to a certain idea or sect prevents one from adopting a critical or thorough approach to the information (intelligence). He readily accepts and transmits lies.
“Another reason for why the information is tainted with lies is the absolute confidence in those who report or transmit the information. Thus, examining whether the information is false or true involves finding out whether the person who reports it is trustworthy by investigating into his faults and defects.
“Another reason for why the information may be tainted with lies is to forget about the purposes. Many people who report the information cannot readily understand what the purpose of the information is by just looking at or listening to it. Rather, he reports it based on his conjectures or estimates, thereby adding lies to the information.
“Another reason for why the information may be tainted with lies is the presumption that the information is true. This is a common case. This, in general, results from nurturing confidence in the person who reports the information.
“Another reason is not to know how to compare states with events. This is because as the states (phenomena) are mixed with the information (perception) so that they are imperceptible, the reporter reports the states as he sees it. However, as it has changed shape, it does not conform to the truth.”
After providing the foregoing explanation, Ibn Khaldun draws attention to the danger posed by stooges who mushroom around leaders, in my opinion, in every age: “Another reason for tainting the information (intelligence) with lies is the reporters’ attempt at fluttering the high-ranking officials to ensure that they praise the reporters and make them famous. In this way, much false information is disseminated. People like to be praised. People stare at the worldly blessings such as dignity and wealth. In general, they do not favor virtues and they do not compete with virtuous people to obtain these virtues.”
I think it is impossible to say that Ibn Khaldun’s observations, particularly those concerning stooges, are not valid today. And this applies to his following observations as well: “Initially, the leader/king is close to the public. It is easy to access him... After he enters the phase of majesty and grandeur by obtaining every glory, the head of the state wants to discuss the state’s major affairs with his high-ranking state officials and people close to him in private. In other words, he seeks to stay away from the public as far as possible... Due to the demands and requirements of the post, the clothes and character of the king/administrator change over time... They allow only elite people who know how to treat him to meet him. Over time, a group of people who veil or keep the king away from the public and these people allow only the relatives and state officials to have access to the king’s presence... [This section has been summarized.] The purpose of those people who veil the king from the public or keep the king in custody is to prevent other people from influencing the king or from replacing him with other people and to ensure the continuation of their pressure on the king. The king is taken under the thickest, three-layered veil in the last phase/days of the state/power. The introduction of the third veil between the king and the public is a sign of the senility and weakness of the state/power.”
For Ibn Khaldun, the members of the dynasties, powers, families or clans who have “dignity” and “khasab” (nobility) do not lose their nobility just because their asabiyyah (kinship) has weakened. But it has something to do with the personal attitudes and behaviors of individuals. For him, nobility and dignity are generally destroyed in four generations. The first person/generation (phase) that obtained greatness and glory keeps in mind the difficulties overcome in obtaining it and therefore, continues to implement diligently whatever measures are needed to maintain it.
His son or successor (or the second phase, B.K.) talks personally to his father or predecessor and listens to his information about this. However, perceptions and understanding of a person who sees something in person are stronger than those of a person who listens to it. The third generation (phase) is content with ignorantly imitating their predecessors. The third generation (phase) dispenses with the way of their predecessors and wastes the qualities and virtues which made the creation and maintenance of greatness and glory possible. Indeed, they forget that greatness and glory that imply nobility are the attributes earned with hardships and difficulties. They assume that these attributes were always with them due to their lineage. They fail to understand that nobility is based on good qualities and virtues...
Thus, the fourth generation (phase) keep themselves away from their own asabiyyah or society and sees themselves superior to them; they do not know (or do not care, B.K.) that they must have virtues of humility in return for their submission to themselves and they are supposed to win their hearts. To the contrary, they denigrate and humiliate them. For this reason, the followers turn their backs to the king over time and they denigrate him and start to support another person from another branch of the same lineage who has positive qualities.
For Ibn Khaldun, this applies to the king’s families, tribal leaders, chiefs and other asabiyyah... Although nobility is generally maintained for four generations, he argues that the number of generations may be more or less than four. Therefore, his four-generation taxonomy should be seen as our phases. (See Seyfi Say, “İbn Haldun’un Düşünce Sistemi ve Uluslar arası İlişkiler Kuramı” / “Ibn Khaldun’s Thought System and International Relations Theory,” Harf Yayınları, İstanbul, 2011, p. 596)
Of course, there are also historical and current cases in which all of these phases are experienced in a single generation. For those who are willing to understand, Ibn Khaldun is giving us important lessons from 700 years ago.
Published by Today’s Zaman on Aug. 02, 2012