In 2008 I finished my thesis on the religious movements that possessed medieval trade entrepot of Sijilmassa, a town on the edge of the Sahara in what is now Morocco. Ibn Khaldun was a major figure in my thesis, and his work on the Berbers is indispensable for anyone studying the medieval Maghrib. I am going to quote from my thesis in order to demonstrate the concept of ‘asabiyyah:
Ali ibn Yusuf ruled while living the life of an ascetic, oblivious to the concerns of his kingdom. While he was an intellectual and a very pious man, the fall of the Almoravid would stem from his inaction in the face of threats from the north, east and south. In the introduction to his Kitab al-‘Ibar, the famous historian Ibn Khaldun points to the concept of ‘asabiyah as being integral to the failure of Ali ibn Yusuf’s regime. Being translated loosely as “group feeling”, ‘asabiyah is the glue that holds an empire together121. Ibn Khaldun, hypothesizing one of the first sociological theories, believed that the Almoravid, at the beginning of their conquests, held a strong group feeling that was born out of their religion and their willingness to fight and die for one another: ‘asabiyah was the mutual cooperation that formed the basis of the movement. Using the fall of the Almoravid as a centerpiece for this theory of cohesion, Ibn Khaldun theorizes that a dynasty’s ‘asabiyah becomes dispersed the longer they rule. Several generations will usually spell the end of a dynasty, as the ‘asabiyah of the movement will become so dispersed that the individuals will forget what bound them together in the first place122. Thus, Ali ibn Yusuf’s unwillingness to set straight the complicated local affairs of his kingdom only hastened the downfall of his regime. As the loot from conquest began to disappear into the coffers of the empire, and the conquest of land stopped at the furthest borders of this Muslim empire, Ali ibn Yusuf instituted a set of taxes that would have been abominable to the forerunners of his movement like Abd Allah ibn Yasin123. The outer provinces no longer felt a need to support the Almoravid regime, and thus, the next Berber movement’s conquest came from the periphery; Ibn Khaldun says that as ‘asabiyah is lost, it is the fringes of an empire that disintegrate first, eventually threatening the center of the empire. This is the cyclical nature of Ibn Khaldun’s historiography – an empire is established, gradually becomes more decadent and loses cohesion, and then is overtaken from the periphery of its territory. The Almoravid movement capitalized on similar circumstances: with the Umayyad and Fatamid caliphates in decline, they found a Moroccan population that was uncommitted to a religious movement. Sijilmassa itself even requested the intervention of the Almoravid religious movement. In turn, the Almohad, led by two charismatic religious figures in Ibn Tumart and Abd al-Mumineen, would capitalize on the Almoravid weakness and thus bring religious reform and centralized government to the land for the second time.
For Khaldun, a decline in asabiyyah is a result of urbanization and consolidation of power. As group cohesion decreases, the chances of another group with more asabiyyah threatening the incumbent becomes more and more likely. It is one of the earliest sociological theories out there, and I believe it may be his most important next to his identification of the Laffer curve.
Last week, the MNLA declared that the Azawad would be an autonomous homeland:
In the days after the coup, town after town fell in the north to the Tuaregs. They declared a ceasefire Thursday, announcing they had captured the territory of Azawad, which they see as their homeland.
“The Executive Committee of the MNLA calls on the entire international community to immediately recognize, in a spirit of justice and peace, the independent state of Azawad,” Billal Ag Acherif, secretary-general of the MNLA said on the group’s website.
The Tuareg have been lost at sea, as it were, since French colonialism. The Azawad was never recognized as a Tuareg homeland, and as a result, the Tuareg became a people with no state. Hannah Arendt spent much of her political philosophy on the subject of refugees without a homeland, often through the lens of the League of Nations and the Minorities Treaties. In Arendt’s view, the homeland is the basis for natal rights. Belonging to a land is so incredibly important to the human experience, such that the loss of a homeland can mean disaster for the refugee.
A resurgence in Tuareg nationalism has captured the imagination of the Kel Tamashek, and their statelessness is being challenged in the same cyclical turn of asabiyyah that Khaldun pointed out hundreds of years ago. The best example of this renewed asabiyyah is the rise of Tuareg rock groups like Tinariwen. Tinariwen’s members grew up in refugee camps making guitars out of rubbish, and some were conscripted into Gaddafi’s armies. These men and women lived through the reality of the grim life of the Kel Tamashek, giving an extra punch to their acid rock style.
In the song Imidiwan (Companions), the group speaks directly to Africa:
“My friends from all over Africa,
I have a question that still haunts me,
Is the revolution like some tree whose branches only grow if we water it?”
Tuareg artists like Tinariwen are framing their struggle in a wider context of a pan-African struggle. Tinariwen calls the people of Africa their imidiwan. The struggle of the Tuareg thus becomes the struggle of an entire continent trying to heal terrible wounds.
Mali is preparing to strike against the Tuareg rebels in the north with the full support of an undisguised imperial ally in France. Given how badly equipped the Malian army is, it is unclear whether they could do this alone. However, they most likely will not attack the Tuareg alone:
- The AU has said publicly that the MNLA declaration is null and void and that it respects the totality of Malian sovereignty.
- Other Sahel countries have pledged support to Mali, provided they get their government in order.
- The LA Times article mentions this little tidbit:
- Western governments are alarmed about a second group, Ansar Dine, which has swept into some of northern towns on the MNLA’s coattails. It has ordered shopkeepers to pull down pictures depicting people, declaring them un-Islamic, and it has told residents it plans to impose Islamic law. Ansar Dine has links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, raising fears the terror group could strengthen its hand in the region, already a hub for cocaine trafficking, crime and kidnappings. The ghost of Osama Bin Laden strikes again.
Once again the Sahara will see competing societies, competing asabiyyah, and a war for a homeland. It would be very hard to say where things will go from here.