It is said that we live in interesting times. The increasing turmoil on the economic, political, and social front over the last two decades has not left anyone untouched and nowhere have the effects been greater than in the Arab world. These changes require a rethinking of the old order by a new generation that will witness the unfolding of these momentous events and, with some effort, may be able to steer their course. It is therefore only to be lauded when the baton is taken up by someone like Mohammed Hashas in his formulation of the concept of a “trust state”.
The trust state is formulated by Hashas as an alternative to the modern nation state. His point is well taken. Notwithstanding the universally neutral and fair pretentions of the nation state, the building of the modern world based on a worldwide system of nation states of which its members are considered as free and equal citizens was, no doubt, the result of overt and hidden exertion of power on an unprecedented scale. It is also uncontroversial that the West, where the nation state first took root, has been the main beneficiary of this system, and that it extended the reach of the nation state to the rest of the world through imperialism.
The crucial question is how Hashas’s trust state differs from the much-maligned nation state. The definition of the trust state given at the beginning of Part II of Hashas’s article leaves this unclear. He claims that “we mean by Trust State”: the ruling and mature institution which administers its citizens’ affairs within a particular geographical area and period of time, guards their rights first, decrees their duties and represents them before neighbouring as well as remote nations and States.
Surely this is not too far off from a general definition of the nation state associated with the Westphalian system. The notions further added to this definition, such as equality and the absence of discrimination “on the basis of language, race, colour, religion or thought” are akin to later additions to the concept of the nation state during the Enlightenment. One could imagine an opponent of the nation state retort that, though these are all elements of the ideal of the nation state, reality is much harsher. Ideals such as those of equal representation, the rule of law, and ‘free and fair elections’ are part of a theory of political legitimacy. They are talking points in a sales pitch. The workings of the nation state are better described in terms of enforcement through the law and the swaying of popular opinion through the media and economic incentives. Practical politics, in contrast to its theoretical counterpart, is about sticks and carrots.
Yet, this only begs the question. For it is not clear to what extent the trust state envisioned by Hashas differs in this regard from the nation state. The state, or really any form of human cooperation, is mired by conflict. The bare fact that people have different worldviews and conflicting interests engenders the need for systems to resolve these conflicts. The nation state offers one solution to this problem. Its central and undisputed authority keeps all citizens falling under its rule in check. It is able to do so through the support of bureaucratic institutions and the police apparatus. Its legitimacy is derived from its supposed neutrality; the fact that it transcends the religious, racial, linguistic and other divisions that form a plural society and considers each individual a citizen in abstracto. What does the trust state offer in response? What are its means for resolving conflict? What are its techniques for ruling a diverse population?
One important consideration in favor of the trust state is that it proposes to rule without mediating the conflicts of the people who make up this state through an abstracted notion of citizenship. It does not transcend conflicts between members of the state and thus supposedly leaves more space for people to express their particular identities. The trust state is non-secular. Where secularism forms an essential part of the ideology that underlies the nation state, allowing it to transcend the personal identities of its members, which are rooted in different competing traditions and classes, the trust state aims to cooperate with religion in order to solve “public as well as private issues of citizens.” This, Hashas argues, will help to “avoid chaos and antagonizing authorities.” The question, again, is how he envisions this. On the face of it, to allow different traditions within a society to have a say in how conflicts are resolved only adds to the number of antagonizing authorities and will, absent any detailed system for resolving such conflicts, result in chaos.
Presumably, part of the answer is to be found at the level of the individual and not at that of the institutions. When Hashas speaks in part I of the article about creating a state in which “the Arab trusts the Kurd, the Amazigh trusts the Arab, the believer trusts the non-believer and the agnostics, the majorities trust the minorities, the latter in turn trust their intra-minorities and vice versa” he cannot merely refer to the social contract that binds these people. Instead, the perceptions of these peoples, their ways of speaking and listening to each other must be trained in order to prepare them for mutual understanding and cooperation. As an ideal this is certainly commendable. Too often, too little attention is paid by both proponents and opponents of the modern nation state to the role played by such personal sensibilities which fashion the kind of personality on which any state is built. Indeed, it may be regarded as particular to the supposed neutrality of liberal theory that its proponents tend to disregard the ways in which it requires and therefore fashions the modern individual that forms the atom of the nation state. One of the interesting ways in which Taha Abderrahmane, whose ideas constitute the backbone for Hashas’s theorizing on the trust state, differs from liberal theory is that he is attentive to the ways in which the ethical formation of the person underlies the ways in which he is able to cooperate with others in larger associations. In Hashas’s proposal it is not clear, however, how these personalities are formed. As is the case for institutions, at the personal level questions of power are left out of the discussion.
Although it is understandable, given the fact that Hashas’s two-part article is meant as a sketch and not as a fully worked out theory, that he does not go into detail about the dynamics of power, their absence is unfortunate. Even before the Arab revolutions Islamists have been ridiculed for repeating ad nauseam their slogan “Islam is the solution” without offering any specific guidance as to what this solution would look like. Pointing, as Hashas does, to the “genius of Muhammad” in “managing a society characterised by tribal and religious plurality” by providing them with a social contract, is not enough in this regard. Social contracts, as Hobbes argued, require a means of enforcement, a sovereign. This sovereign, whatever its nature – democratic, monarchic, oligarchic – needs ways of enforcing the contract, techniques of power. The presumption that this was any different in the time of Muhammad is belied by the fact that immediately after his death the umma that he had forged had to be held together by force as several Arab tribes revolted during the reign of his successor, Abu Bakr. Ideal as this contract may have been at the time, it did not enforce itself.
No doubt in our times it will be even harder to uphold or even introduce the ideals of the trust state. Given that we live in a modern, capitalist society, in a world where nation states are not only a norm but an international requirement for being part of the global economic and political system, it is unclear how something resembling Hashas’s trust state could come about. The question of power is not only central to the preservation of a political system, it is also essential in theorizing about how alternatives can be implemented. If talk of a trust state is to be anything more than mere talk, it will have to seriously consider how it can carve out a place for itself given the current socio-economic and political constellations that shape modernity. Regardless of whether the majority of any population is religious or not, our world is a secular one. Hashas’s proposal for an alternative to the nation state in important ways resembles the critique voiced by Wael Hallaq in his book The Impossible State. Both attack the Western nation state and contrast it unfavorably with Islamic governance, which for centuries managed pluralistic societies without devaluing the unique character of each group with an appeal to the imposed blanket notion of secular citizenship. One point where the authors diverge is in their sense of optimism as to whether this ideal is retrievable in our time. Unsurprisingly, given the title of his book, Hallaq believes that modern attempts at Islamic governance, like the reconstruction of Islamic law or the modern incarnations of Islamic finance, will necessarily fail since they remain embedded in a global liberal, capitalist structure. This, according to him, precludes the formation of a modern individual according to Islamic principles, something that is necessary for Islamic institutions to work properly. Hashas does not share Hallaq’s skepticism. If his proposal for the trust state is to convince, he will need to show why and, importantly, how a trust state can function in a modern world.