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The state or the individual…which is more important?

What is the state’s duty toward its citizens? Should they be exploited as a tool in certain political endeavors or should they be protected, developed, educated and promoted?

The state is a need for the individuals who make it…or is it above individuals? Is the state an independent entity, with individual citizens deriving from it their value, existence and meaning? Will the state derive its meaning, existence and value from citizens and society or from another source?

Which is above which, the state or the individual?

These questions are not merely theoretical speculation or a pleasurable overview of the philosophical and historical roots to the meaning of the state and its relationship to individuals and society. They are necessary in order to re-formulate this relationship and better understand it.

I was prompted to wonder about these issues, as I read an interview with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, published in Asharq Al Awsat last Saturday. Speaking about Saudi Arabia’s four-year war on terrorism and the recent surrender of four suspected terrorists in Jeddah, the monarch said, “The lives of citizens are dear to us, including those of rogues,” as he personally intervened to spare the terrorists’ lives.

On the other hand, speaking about the need to develop this life and not just safeguard it, King Abdullah indicated that his dream would be that, in twenty-five years time, a King Abdullah university for science and technology be built.

It is this vision that I am searching for, despite it being surrounded by shrieks from all over the region where individuals are used as shields by states for their cross border adventures, whether fundamentalist or nationalist, from Saddam Hussein to Ayatollah Khomeini, or where individuals are exploited by mini-states, like Hezbollah’s supporters.

Why is the individual so insignificant? Why, if he sought to live, is he considered a tool for death, or “martyrdom”? It is as if it is a flaw to love life!

It seems the ill that has befallen us is older than the contemporary Arab world. It is, therefore, useful to examine the history of the relationship between the individual and the state in this part of the world.

In political Islamic thought, different opinions competed about the link between the individual and the state. According to the Sassanid view, the central position of the state is a necessary condition for its success and considered Khosrau, the Persian King, to be the center for political and social life. According to Ridwan al Sayyid, in a book “Al Umma, wa al Jamaa and wa al Sulta” (The nation, the group and power) published in 1984, this heritage of an absolute ruler supported by a divine shadow had a huge effect on Islamic political thought.

When Muawiyya established the Umayyad dynasty in 661, he sought to follow the Persian Khosrau approach but relied on a clear tribal legitimacy and a Damascene solidarity, as well as a religious aura.

Following the earthquake of the big strife and the beginnings of the Arab Umayyad dynasty, resistance to this ideology took on several political and intellectual directions, in addition to the several armed revolts such as the Arab revolt against central government and the Khawarij.

The Abbasids seized power as a rebellion against this Umayyad tyranny, with a religious and social pretext, which is to support the Mehdi and achieve justice. However, the caliph al Mansour soon became a new Khosrau and believed he needed a new political philosophy. He sought the help of Ibn al Muqaffa, the intellectual with excellent knowledge of Persian traditions and heritage. He revived the notion of Khosrau with an Islamic robe and reinforced the centrality of the government and the power of the caliphate, bestowing it a charismatic garb. Opposition to this view returned and the Mutazila emphasized the value of the individual and marginalized the position of the government.

The crucial question remains: Who will restore the state as a friend of the individual not one to exploit it. When will the state improve the individual instead of being his deity? When will it become a wise state and not a dominating force, even if in Islamic garb?

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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