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The State Comes First - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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As students of political science, the most disliked philosopher of politics and society was the Englishman, Thomas Hobbes. In ‘The Leviathan’, Hobbes discussed sovereignty and the state which are inseparable. At that time, we were young men with diverse ideologies and we never differentiated between absolute authority or absolute sovereignty or whether or not these concepts are necessary despite studying these ideas in the context of political science. However, may God damn the ideologies and pre-conceived ideas that blind the individual from seeing the most simple and clear of matters and not ideas that require a clear mind and the desire to learn new matters. At that time we were satisfied with the information that we had acquired and content with what we had learnt. Hobbes believed that the lack of or weakness of central political power cannot achieve or establish anything. When central authority is absent as a result of the erosion of state sovereignty, the community is no longer deemed as one but rather shifts into the “state of nature” where absolute freedom is the rule, however in terms of war of all against all. It becomes a freedom of killing, looting and destruction where fear is the other face of freedom. Liberty without organized authority is chaos. Hobbes believes that there is no such thing as society without authority and the rule of an absolute commanding sovereignty.

We considered Hobbes a theorist in favour of absolute power and despotism and were not convinced by political philosophers who categorised Hobbes as one of the most prominent theorists of modern capitalism, which used to be the infrastructure of contemporary technical civilization as well as what accompanied the developments and changes of politics and society. After Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau and others appeared and were labelled “philosophers of the social contract”. These philosophers had employed the theory of the social contract whilst preaching democracy and the rule of the people. Despite the apparent contradiction between Hobbes’ ideas on one hand that call for one central authority, and the ideas of Locke and Rousseau on the other hand that call for public participation in the political decision-making process, these ideas complement each other. After Hobbes had endorsed the concept of sovereignty which was later crystallized by the French philosopher Jean Bodin, Locke as well as Rousseau and others proceeded with the theory of popular participation within a single sovereignty. Thus the concept of sovereignty was not the topic of debate as much as the issue of the exercising of power under absolute sovereignty and who should be the legitimate source of this sovereignty; the people (democracy), the governor (autocracy) or God (theocracy). However, in the end, everybody refers to the social contract as a source of legitimacy, which stands for the necessity of achieving complacency and acceptance between the two parts of the political equation: the ruler and the ruled.

The truth is that the goal is not abstract theorization as much as this kind of speculation is necessary to understand the current situations in the world just as it was necessary in the past. This is especially in the case of the contemporary Arab world that resembles Hobbes’ Britain and Europe centuries ago. The Iraqi scene for example is a real life representation of the state of nature that Hobbes had talked about in which everybody is at war with everybody and where absolute freedom is tantamount to chaos, particularly in light of the absence of effective state sovereignty. All parties in contemporary Iraq claims to be the legitimate holder of sovereignty and the sole authorized party to monopolize power, whether this authorization came from a religious or a worldly authoritative source or whether it was motivated by self-interests or sectarian unconsciousness. The result is the tragic scene that we are witnessing today in Iraq. It is true that the previous political Iraqi regime had monopolized power and maintained the unity of sovereignty; however it had repressed all freedoms, not only political freedoms. Thus stability was established but under oppression, repression and restriction and did not allow society’s potential in all walks of life to be discovered. Hence, the desired results of the unity of sovereignty and the centralization of power that Hobbes’ theory had promised never materialized. Hobbes’ state had advocated autocracy in light of the social and political conditions at that time, but it had never advocated totalitarianism which is synonymous to absolute freedom in the sense that it eliminates all creative activity.

In the Lebanese civil war and contemporary Lebanon, there exists a kind of state of nature but to a much lesser extent than in Iraq. However, there would not have been much difference between the Lebanese and Iraqi cases if the Lebanese situation remained tense in light of visible and unseen disputes between opponents concerning the monopoly of power and the claim of a lost sovereignty. In the end, the situation would be no less than that of conflicting factions regardless of the various forms of this conflict or the division of sovereignty between them, whilst sovereignty in fact is undividable. This would mean the destruction of the state, or domination by one of the groups, and controlling the state and holding onto power merely by force. The fire will then await an appropriate opportunity for it to break out again, similar to the case in Iraq since the 1958 coup. The result in all cases is the loss of the state and the murdering of society, whether by returning to the state of nature or the contrary state of totalitarianism, which results in the same chaos. However, in all cases, the victim is man and creative activity.

I have not referred to the Iraqi and Lebanese situations simply to provide examples, otherwise the state of nature and its destructive “freedom”, as well as totalitarianism and its deadly policing can be found in every Arab entity that has not understood that the state comes before anything else. The state is firmly established and for it to remain so, it must be based upon some sort of social contract, or let us say a free agreement between the various parts of society based on the formation of that society. Otherwise, political vulnerability would be the norm and danger will await a suitable opportunity to corrupt the situation and reshuffle the cards once again. The Taif Accords in Lebanon or the national treaty in Iraq and in other countries could be considered an appropriate social contract that corresponds with the establishment of a state and its escape from the state of nature in its various forms and degrees. Nevertheless, all this depends on the fundamental agreement that the state is the foundation and is the reference of affiliation and accordingly, sovereignty must be granted to the state over anything else and this is one of the many dilemmas of the stray contemporary Arab.

The Arab citizen is lost between and confused by various affiliations. Whilst the world has solved the problem of affiliation, returning to the state as the sole political reference of identity and belonging, the Arab individual is still lost between the various references each of which order the citizen to follow it. In this case, there is contradiction and this leads to breakdown, loss and conflict. One group orders the Arab citizen to be a Muslim only, according to a specific interpretation of who is a Muslim and who is not a Muslim and that his nation is the Muslim world. The other group only sees that one affiliation is more important than any other and resents any citizen who is not nationalistic according to an ideology that seeks to formulate the world view. Thus the state, in the process, becomes an odd concept in all of these debates.

The defect is not regarding being a Muslim and having strong affiliations to Islam, or being an Arab and having a strong sense of Arab nationalism. The flaw lies in the domination of one affiliation over others, or the extent to which priorities are mixed until it is unknown which affiliation is correct and which identity is correct especially if matters become politicized and ideology laden. In that case, we would find ourselves in an even more strayed condition than the Jews of Israel. Briefly speaking and in light of what was aforementioned, the Arabs of today, regardless of their affiliations do not understand the concept of the state as the basic reference for political affiliation. Concepts have overlapped in their minds and so they no longer differentiate between cultural affiliation, religious affiliation, ethnic affiliation, doctrinal affiliation, political affiliation or national affiliation, thus, the colours have been mixed so much so that they have disappeared into one another, and this is the core of the current scene.

Turki Al-Hamad

Turki Al-Hamad

Turki Al-Hamad is a distinguished Saudi Arabian political analyst, journalist and novelist. Mr. Al-Hamad was educated in Saudi Arabia and the United States, where he obtained his PhD from the University of Southern California, later returning to Riyadh to teach political science. He retired in 1995 to take up writing full time.

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