Rethinking collective identity through the lenses of Al Farabi, Ibn Khaldun

MUQTEDAR KHAN
Published 01.05.2019 00:10

There is a revolution in progress that is shifting responsibility for governance and sovereignty away from the state to cities. This revolution even has a name – the fourth industrial revolution

The fifth international symposium on Ibn Khaldun was held at Ibn Haldun University in Istanbul on April 27-28. Under the leadership of its president, Recep Şentürk, scholars from all over the world are increasingly recognizing the incredible contribution of Ibn Khaldun and other Islamic philosophers. In this essay, I argue that the political philosophy of Al Farabi and Ibn Khaldun is extremely relevant as cities become centers of power and governance.

There is a revolution in progress that is shifting responsibility for governance and sovereignty away from the state to cities. This revolution even has a name – the fourth industrial revolution.

In many parts of the world, cities are growing exponentially, and the center of gravity of power, technology, innovation and diplomacy is rapidly concentrating in large global cities. It won't be long before mayors will appoint security advisers whose power and reach will outstrip that of national security advisers. Already we are witnessing cities becoming independent of their federal governments and forging international partnerships much to the chagrin of states and the United Nations. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has recently acknowledged how cities are transforming how we do foreign policy.

While the shift in sovereignty and power from state to cities is most dramatically highlighted in political and legal battles over borders and immigration policy; between the U.S. president and sanctuary cities, the phenomenon is global and ubiquitous. Another dramatic example of the growing power of cities is the extensive counterterrorism, intelligence gathering and surveillance capability now possessed by the police department of New York City that many medium-size European nations would envy.

The U.N., also recognizing this development, is contemplating harnessing the power of city diplomacy as hundreds of city networks and thousands of transnational initiatives have been launched bypassing states and even in opposition to central governments. The U.N. is now actively considering creating an alternate body called the U.N. Urban to acknowledge and coordinate this tectonic shift in governance to cities.

Processes that are driving the power of cities

We are rapidly becoming an urban planet. In 1800 only 3 percent of the world's population lived in cities, in 2008 it was 50 percent and in 2050 it will be about 70 percent, over two-thirds. Today, 10 percent of Pakistan lives in Karachi and contributes 20 percent of its GDP. Casablanca hosts 10 percent of Morocco's population and contributes 32 percent of its GDP. Tehran, with 10 percent of Iran's population, has a 30 percent share in its GDP. Istanbul now has 20 percent of Turkey's population within its urban boundaries, and it contributes 31 percent of Turkey's GDP. Only 35 countries have a bigger GDP than Istanbul at $350 billion, and this rich Muslim city is on par with nations like Israel and Malaysia. No wonder the recent local election for political control of Istanbul has been so contentious.

Control and governance of major cities is critical because they shape the economy, culture and hence the politics of nations more than the state themselves. This is not limited to the Muslim world; it is a global phenomenon. For example, New York City, with an annual GDP over $1.55 trillion, has a bigger GDP than Canada, Russia and Australia and 170 other nations. Only 10 nations have economies that are bigger than the Big Apple.

The reason why cities are experiencing exponential population growth is because of the growth of urban economies and the potential for jobs and the need for workers. But the growth in economies is coming from two critical economic trends, innovation in and rapid development of the tech sector and the expansion of the service sector, particularly the financial sector. With rapid urbanization, dramatic shifts in demography and means of production, governance too is becoming more and more dependent on technology, big data, the "internet of things" (IoT) and continues innovation in how public goods are defined and delivered. Urbanization and its demand for smart city governance is creating a new way of living, and this will necessitate new ways of thinking about and dealing with global politics, the global economy, trade and migration, international security, war and peace.

Connectivity: The new Asabiyyah

In order to think beyond the old Westphalian nation state-based models of international politics, I recommend that we look at our emerging city-centered reality through the lenses of Al Farabi and Ibn Khaldun. Both these Islamic philosophers looked at politics and political development at the level of cities. Al Farabi imagined a virtuous city whose citizens focused on self-actualization and virtue. Ibn Khaldun saw cities and urbanization as the centers of civilization where art, science and culture came to fruition. But importantly, he argued that these cities and centers of power would only emerge after the emergence of Asabiyyah – collective identity and solidarity based on shared identity, usually ethnic, tribal or religious.

But in this age of globalization, these sovereign cities must be diverse and multicultural. Traditional Asabiyyah-based politics are their prime nemesis.

So how can these cities attract migrants and talent from all over the world and still maintain a shared and collective identity? This is where Al Farabi and Ibn Khaldun's vision applies most aptly. They will need a new form of Asabiyyah, one which will be based on the primary driver of these cities' culture and growth – technological innovation. These cities are already carving a shared purpose through social justice campaigns run on tech, namely social media. Networking technology is uniting cities around common virtues and creating the latest avatar of Asabiyyah. Both people and the technology people use are connected and communicate with each other. By 2030, we will have 500 billion devices communicating with each other using the internet of things. Connectivity is the new virtue and the new basis of solidarity. Not only the citizens and smart things of these cities will be connected to each other, but so will more and more cities forming networks of sovereign cities. The new world of smart cities will be based on collectivity through connectivity.

* Professor in the Department of Political Science & International Relations at the University of Delaware and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy (CGP)

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