by Graham E. Fuller
A renowned Arab religious scholar in the 14th century, ibn Taymiyya, is sometimes quoted as saying, Al-zulm afdal ‘ala al-fawda— “oppression is to be favored over anarchy.” Although ibn Taiymiyya was no establishment figure in his time, this perspective was welcomed by all rulers since it provided explicit religious justification in support of arbitrary and often oppressive authority.
Maybe there’s not a lot new here: all rulers at all times and all places like to wrap themselves in the robes of religious, ethnic, or patriotic legitimacy in order to maintain power.
But there’s something else: ibn Taymiyya lived in a period when the holocaust of the Mongol invasions was sweeping across Asia and into the Middle East sowing destruction. It was a time of fear, widespread violence and war, calling for political caution. Sound familiar?
Is this thought, then, the product of a political reactionary? Or does it represent a fundamental insight into basic human psychology? Which of us, when confronted with anarchy in the streets—possibly getting murdered or kidnapped while simply going out to buy a loaf of bread—might not prefer authoritarian crackdown to unbridled chaos; where just staying alive is the best we can hope for in a precarious political and social environment? Ask Iraqis who got liberated from Saddam Hussein, or Libyans liberated from Qaddafi. Or Syrians today. Might the ugliness of the earlier dictatorships not look better—where at least if you stayed totally out of politics your lives were fairly safe and predictable? After all, when life, family, the social order and survival are at stake, our basic political values can get pretty rock-bottom conservative.
Sadly, these words from the 14th century Muslim world may be disturbingly relevant to today. It’s part of a political debate that reverberates through all of human history.
At the level of states, great powers tend to prefer order—virtually any kind of order—to chaos in the world in which they operate. That’s how dictators thrive and gain external support; even democratic states value foreign dictators who can keep the lid on. The US has rarely shrunk from supporting ugly dictators or regimes if it believed it to be “in the national interest.” (Unless that specific regime happens to be directly anti-American in which case terror, destabilization, or overthrow is welcomed.) The US is not especially worse than other major powers in this respect, but its global reach means that it engages in this particular kind of hypocrisy more widely and frequently than most other states.
But the chaos that flowed out of the US overthrow of Saddam in Iraq, Qaddafi in Libya, and efforts to overthrow Asad in Syria, has not only inflicted massive suffering on the populations of those countries, but has left Washington (and the EU) worse off than before—and spawned ISIS out of Iraqi and Syrian turmoil. President Obama wisely decided not to go that same route a fourth time in recently deciding that likely alternatives to Asad would be worse than Asad himself. (Obama’s “liberal interventionist” advisors were not happy.)
So, is oppression more tolerable than anarchy? And for whom? It seems even European and American publics—hardly experiencing anything at home that could remotely be called anarchy, are still willing now to ratchet up the level of police, military and intelligence surveillance powers to avoid even the possibility of any kind of terror incident. People will pay nearly any price if they believe it might make them safer. You don’t have to be a 14th century Muslim cleric to make that observation.
So what is the message here, then?
One message is that liberalism is a delicate flower. We are disinclined to be more generous, open, tolerant, or broad-minded when conditions are dangerous. We see this clearly in western politics today—in the US presidential debates, or in the mood of European societies in the face of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Multi-culturalism and tolerance become unwelcome words.
It’s not just Muslims who think this way. It’s Chinese as well who have gone through political, economic and social hell for half a century of communist experimentation before emerging into the present era of relative prosperity and order under a Chinese government that runs a tight ship. Nobody wants to hear suggestions for an overthrow of the neo-communist order there. Don’t rock the boat, let’s cherish and preserve what we have painfully gained and work for political progress, if any, only through baby steps. Few will risk known stability in the hope of gaining some abstract and untested improvements.
Along similar lines, why don’t Muslims call for huge overhaul of their interpretations of Islam in contemporary Middle Eastern states? When bullets are flying, calls for social and theological change is unthinkable; it’s safer not to address such volatile issues.
These arguments about order are fundamental to the philosophic conservative vision—the true conservative vision and not the grotesque caricature of conservatism that has hijacked most of the Republican Party in the US today. In the end almost all of us embrace this conservative principle to some extent: don’t rock the boat if you have a lot to lose. What we disagree about is how to interpret “rocking the boat” or “having a lot to lose.” It’s all a matter of degree. What risks will we take, what experiments will we undertake, for what putative gain?
I write these words with some trepidation since this conservative political philosophy has been exploited and used to justify atrocious policies on the part of all kinds of dictators around the world, as well as justifying unacceptable foreign policies of the US.
Looking at the world around us today, it looks like we are entering a new conservative age globally, driven by fear of chaos and the increasing spread of violence across so much of the world.
Ibn Taymiyya would have recognized this phenomenon immediately.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). Reprinted, with permission, from grahamefuller.com