Is It Enough to Tie Your Camel and Trust in God?
I don’t mean to be a broken record but the prophetic hadith “tie your camel and trust in God” has been on my mind quite a lot in recent weeks and months. Last week, a group of us, including five former ambassadors, went live with an open letter to President Biden calling for swift action to reverse Tunisia’s descent into full-blown dictatorship. Wisdom of Crowds is not primarily about sharing policy recommendations on specific countries; it is, however, about understanding why we do the things we do and why we believe what we believe. Why do I do what I do? It’s a good question.
The thing about motivations is that they can even be obscure to the people who would seemingly have the most knowledge about them—ourselves, in other words.
On the podcast and elsewhere, I’ve increasingly been open about the sense of futility I sometimes feel when it comes to political change, particularly in the Middle East. I once had hope. In the open letter, we call on the Biden administration to do things it’s quite unlikely to actually do. Maybe this is what still makes me a believer and even a sort of optimist. That something might seem hopeless is no reason not to do it. We must put ourselves in a position to be surprised by unlikely outcomes.
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It’s only recently—in part through my podcast conversations with Damir—that I’ve realized that my belief in “democratic minimalism” is tied to my dislike of outcomes-oriented approaches to politics but also life more broadly. Since we can’t know outcomes ahead of time with any certainty, to act primarily with a mind to what will happen in the future doesn’t seem like the best way to approach things. It can also lead to paralysis. As our recent podcast guestput it, if you’re so afraid of an outcome that you try to avoid it at all costs, then the paradox is that you might unwittingly create the conditions for it to happen.
As I wrote in my launch essay on “The Case Against Consensus,” a political version of this happened in Tunisia. Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, was so afraid of a coup that he unwittingly helped crate the conditions that made it more likely. Despite his best efforts, and perhaps because of them, a coup happened in the end. I very much believe that the preoccupation—and even obsession—with consensus in the Tunisian context is what paved the way for the current, tragic situation.
So, no, I don’t believe that that “consequentialism” is a good way to live one’s life or to approach one’s politics. I thought that I had written something about consequentialism in the context of the 2011 Libya intervention. So I looked back, and apparently I was already thinking in this way in 2016, drawing links between the personal and the political.
The justness of military intervention in March 2011 cannot be undone or negated retroactively. This is not the way choice or morality operates (imagine applying this standard to your personal life). This may suggest a broader philosophical divergence: Obama, according to one of his aides, is a “consequentialist.”
But it’s not just that the personal is political. It’s that certain patterns of thinking work—or, in this case, don’t work—in our individual lives as well as in our collective aspirations for politics.
Which brings me back to the question of motivation. Trying to get the U.S. to change its Middle East policy seems hopeless, and it might actually be hopeless, but we have no way of knowing this with any certainty until the future—and sometimes the future is long. Because we are all “presentists” now, it is very hard to understand the past or for that matter the future on its own terms. (For a deep dive into how “presentism” affects our understanding of past evils, including slavery, check out my conversation with Jonathan Brown, the author of the definitive book on the topic Slavery and Islam).
I opened up with my students a few days ago on some of these questions. It was the final class of the semester. The course is called “Islam and Politics in the Middle East.” Many of them are considering careers in diplomacy and Middle East politics, and I could tell they were frustrated, but the good kind of frustration where it spurs you to think beyond the present. At least in the contemporary era, Islam and politics have not been reconciled. There have been a number of attempts to reach a settlement over the role of religion in public life. Some of them were more promising than others. But, in the Middle East, almost all of these attempts have come up short. There must be a different way. And there probably is. We just don’t know it yet.
This is why the best we can do is the best we can do, a tautology perhaps, but a helpful one. Although as my mom once playfully put it: “Your best isn’t good enough.” Yes, that may be true as well. Time is finite, and there’s no use resisting that reality. Within our existing constraints—one of which is the (un)fortunate fact that we have only about 4000 weeks to live—there is only so much we can do. It might not be good enough. But maybe, one day, it will.
If you’re interested in learning more about the situation in Tunisia and what the U.S. can do about it, please consider reading and sharing our Open Letter, which is signed by former senior officials and diplomats, including at least one fellow Substacker. And, as they say, "tie your camel and trust in God."