“Tyranny is the origin of every perversity,” claims the author of The Nature of Tyranny and the Devastating Results of Oppression. “Tyranny corrupts the mind by restrictions, and degrades religion by manipulations, and destroys knowledge by intimidations.”
Reading these passages, it looks as if Syrian Abdul Rahman Al-Kawakibi is describing life in Assad’s Syria or Sisi’s Egypt, but he is in fact talking about the late Ottoman world. The Nature of Tyranny… was written well over a century ago during the reign of Ottoman Caliph Abdulhamid II when Al-Kawakibi (1854-1902) was part of the wave of Arab intellectuals known as the Nahda movement, challenging existing norms, traditions and beliefs as well as socio-political structures. His book has remained in the political imagination and was one of the key texts being passed around Tahrir Square in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings. Despite its popularity in the Arab world, no full English translation has ever emerged, until now.
“Some hypocrite [religious] scholars permitted obedience [to the ruler] to avoid widespread hardship that may result in killing many people, including themselves,” is a sentence which was biting when first published and is just as shocking now. Amer Chaikhouni’s translation captures the power of the original, and The Nature of Tyranny… spares no one believed to be serving tyrannical rulers.
The author dissects and understands the problem of authoritarianism, and outlines his remedies. Today’s readers will be saddened to learn that many of the issues outlined by Kawakibi are still with us, and the dream of freedom remains as elusive as ever.
Born in Aleppo where he received an Islamic education in both Arabic and Turkish, Al-Kawakibi’s path to activism began early, and at 24 years of age he was editor of a newspaper in Aleppo. Known for his powerful and skilled oratory, he would rouse audiences in cafes during his time in Cairo. His radical politics did not stop him from becoming mayor of Aleppo, although his criticism of the Ottoman Empire would see him removed from this position and imprisoned. After his release he left the city and moved to Istanbul to join the Ottoman civil service, before being dismissed again for his activism.
His now classic book was born partly out of these experiences. The Ottoman Empire was introducing a degree of openness with its reforms introducing parliamentary democracy at the time, but this was starting to be undone when Al-Kawakibi was active by the more authoritarian Abdulhamid II and the Khedives in Egypt. There was meant to be a follow up to The Nature of Tyranny, but it never materialised as Al-Kawakibi died in mysterious circumstances. It has been rumoured that he was poisoned by the Ottomans, but nobody knows for certain.
Much of The Nature of Tyranny is a product of its time. “Human beings used to eat other humans for ages until wise men in China, and then in India managed to stop this practice of cannibalism,” writes Al-Kawakibi. This sounds odd today, but we can imagine late 19th century readers taking it in their stride.
Arguably the biggest cause for concern for modern readers is Al-Kawakibi’s attitude towards women, where there is real tension. On the one hand he laments the restrictions placed on women and the wasted potential this represents, while on the other he holds deeply misogynistic views. For example, he seems to suggest that women impose an economic tyranny upon men and manipulate them. Again, however, this would probably not have been anything unusual when it was written.
Despite this, Al-Kawakibi is still worth engaging with, as his ideas about political tyranny continue to inspire people. Not, it must be said, because everything that he says is correct, but because he dared to challenge tyranny by dissecting it so comprehensively.
This translation of The Nature of Tyranny… exposes English readers to a world of enlightened Arab thought, countering the Western myth that the Arab world has never experienced anything like the European Enlightenment. It is a fallacy to think that because the Arab world is governed by dictators this must be embedded in the Arab culture and mindset.
Al-Kawakibi was part of an intellectual wave during his lifetime, and his thoughts are very much part of Arab intellectualism being discovered by the West today. While the details of what constitutes a just society are somewhat different in today’s world compared with his time, nonetheless the fight for justice goes on, and Al-Kawakibi can rightly be regarded as one of the predecessors of those brave people who took to the streets of the Arab world ten years ago during the ill-fated Arab Spring. The Nature of Tyranny… is bold, provocative and biting; it remains worthy of study.