Saturday, May 31, 2008

On Inequality

Abdur-Rahman  al-Kawakibi, a Muslim revivalist and Sayyid (claimant of lineage descended from the Prophet) from Aleppo, Syria of the late 19th century affectionately known as Abu Du'afa or "Father of the Weak" for his arguments on behalf of the downtrodden (quoted from Hanna Batatu's seminal work "The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq", p. 368):

Human beings share the hardships of life in an unjust way...for men of politics and religion and their hangers-on--and their number does not exceed one percent--enjoy half or more of what congeals from the blood of humanity, and squander it in self-indulgent luxury...And those who trade in precious and luxurious commodities and the avaricious merchants and the monopolists and the like of this class, and they number also around one percent, live each of them as live tens, or hundreds, or thousands of workers and peasants...It is not a question of equating...the active and enterprising with the indolent and the sluggard, but justice requires other than that inequality, and humaneness imposes that the elevated should take the lowly by his hand and bring him close to his rank and mode of life.

That last bold emphasis is my own, and extreme laissez faire, Adam-Smith-invisible-hand advocates should take note (be they western or eastern).  Let's face it, the poor tend to work much harder than the rich, they simply don't have the money and power to aggrandize and praise themselves for it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the real issue in the Middle East is nothing to do with this stupid "moderates" versus "extremists" talk.  Anytime that framework pops up it is either a gross misunderstanding of symptoms versus causes or else a deliberate smokescreen by the powers that be in Washington and Middle Eastern capitals.  The real issue is the needs of the people for ma'kal, malbas, and maskan (food, clothing, and shelter), personal safety and dignity, and free expression -- against the elites who want to hoard those things for themselves.  It is no different than the struggles in many other countries.  The attempts to suppress those demands are what produce the warped economic circumstances, repressive political systems, and twisted ideologies of rulers and rebels.  Seek to honestly address the basic issues al-Kawakibi pointed to over a century ago, and open up the public space for all to have their say in dealing with those issues, and only then will you start to see solutions emerge.  Preferably through gradualism (honest, not fake as despots and elites usually trick people into), or otherwise Thomas Jefferson's quote rings true enough anywhere in the world where the circumstances become too dire: "A little revolution now and then is a good thing; the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

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