British PM cites 14th-century Arab sage for economic inspiration

Johnson’s surprise reference drew a quick response in Ibn Khaldun’s native Tunisia, where social media users and news outlets highlighted the British prime minister’s remarks.
Sunday 24/11/2019
One of the region’s premier thinkers. Statue of 14th-century Tunisian scholar Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun in Tunis. (Britannica)
One of the region’s premier thinkers. Statue of 14th-century Tunisian scholar Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun in Tunis.(Britannica)

TUNIS - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made waves in the Arab world after he cited a prominent 14th-century Tunisian scholar for economic inspiration.

Johnson, speaking to the Telegraph newspaper, praised Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) for his economic insight that lower tax rates can sometimes increase revenue.

“(Ibn Khaldun) observed that if you cut taxes on the olive harvest, or whatever it was in 14th-century Tunisia, that actually people grew more olives and tax yields went up,” said Johnson, who advocates a lower tax rate in the United Kingdom.

The surprise reference drew a quick response in Ibn Khaldun’s native Tunisia, where social media users and news outlets highlighted the British prime minister’s remarks.

“See, Boris isn’t that bad,” wrote one Tunisian social media user, who was among hundreds to share local news articles that picked up on the story.

Some analysts were more critical of Johnson’s allusion to the Arab intellectual, saying the prime minister had given a selective and misleading picture of Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy for his own political agenda.

“@BorisJohnson please don’t blame your neoliberal economic ideology on Tunisian scholars,” Fadhel Kaboub, president of the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, wrote on Twitter. “Ibn Khaldun was very clear about reducing the unfair tax burden on small farmers (not today’s agribusiness & predatory finance). Try again.”

Income tax in the United Kingdom is 45% for those making more than $193,500. Those making less than $15,480 are exempt from taxes.

This was not the first time Johnson cited Ibn Khaldun. On July 17, Johnson invoked the philosophy of the Tunisian scholar when asked at a Tory leadership conference how he planned to both increase public spending and cut taxes.

“It was the great Tunisian sage, Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century, who pointed out that there are some taxes that you can cut that actually stimulate economic growth,” replied Johnson, who was applauded by the Tory audience.

Johnson, who faces the difficult task of leading the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, has a distinguished educational background that likely introduced him to classical Arab intellectuals such as Ibn Khaldun.

After attending Eton boarding school, Johnson studied classics at Balliol College in Oxford, where he was elected president of the student union. Johnson, from a family of liberal intellectuals, was also likely taught Arab classics from an early age at home.

Despite Johnson’s appreciation for Arab history and philosophy, the prime minister has a controversial reputation in the region because of his critical remarks about Islam.

He was criticised on social media after comments from 2012 showed him as having described Islam as holding the Muslim world “centuries behind” the West, stating that the religion “inherently inhibits the path to progress and freedom.”

Born in Tunisia, Ibn Khaldun was an Arab historian who is regarded one of the region’s premier thinkers across various disciplines.

Ibn Khaldun is best known for his book “The Muqaddimah” or “Prolegomena” (“Introduction”), which influenced 17th-century Ottoman historians Katip Celebi, Ahmed Cevdet Pasha and Mustafa Naima.

“The Muqaddimah” had an influence on 20th-century economic theory, notably supply-side economic philosophy advocated by Arthur Laffer, Ronald Reagan and others.

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