Though asabiya may be a somewhat unfamiliar word for many (it is an Arabic word coined by the North African historian Ibn Khaldun to refer to social cohesion), it is a surprisingly practical aspect of life and a subject that I muse about fairly often as I see it in action. I would like to examine today some of the applications of asabiya as they appear in my normal life, without me having to look very hard for them. This is probably a good thing, as my time for hunting down information that is too far afield is rather limited. So, without any further ado, let us examine a few areas of asabiya that my life contains, so that we may briefly ponder the implications of asabiya in our lives.
So, the temporary job I have right now allows me the chance to take a view of a lot of different homes and businesses. There is a strong difference in the asabiya of apartments and homes. In apartments, it can be common for people not to know their neighbors, and in homes one generally knows one’s neighbors well as a result of years. In large part, this is due to two factors that are key elements of asabiya. For one, people in homes usually stay far longer than people in apartments, who might stay a year or less, while people in homes could stay for decades, and sometimes even for generations. After all, there is a family house that has stayed in my family for more than two hundred years–that is a huge amount of asabiya-building effort in a community. One of my ancestors coined the term Norwin to describe the combination of the town of Irwin and the township of North Huntington in Western Pennsylvania. Every time I see a sign that says “Norwin” when I visit friends and family, I know that one of my own relatives was responsible for that term. And I feel a sense of pride in that, an aspect of asabiya that we should remember. The second factor is related to the first–not only are apartment dwellers generally more transient members of their community than homeowners, but they are also generally less deeply rooted in their communities. When you plan to stay in an area awhile, and I say this as someone who has been semi-nomadic in my life, you generally are much more involved in your community. I suppose I am one of those people who tends to be service-minded and involved in my local community despite not being a very settled person by experience, but perhaps (as I have alluded to above) I have enough of a tie to stable and extreme longevity in an area to have the behavior of someone who declares ownership of my area and seeks active involvement in making my community better. Lesson: home ownership improves asabiya, as does having a family with a history of roots and service-mindedness. Transiency and a lack of civic mindedness are a drain on the asabiya of a community.
So, the congregation where I attend has a large number of teenagers, most of whom I have gotten to know a little bit because I sing with them in an a capella youth choir and we practice just about every Sabbath after services. I have not been a teenager for some time, which makes me feel a bit awkward at times, but they are friendly enough, both with me and especially with each other. There is a great deal of asabiya among the young people of this area that I know–they sit together in a couple of rows at church, and they appear to hang out at each other’s houses (sometimes for weeks on end in the case of one young person I know). Even as observer, I can see the great deal of closeness between people, even without knowing any of them that well. Asabiya is not something that is hard to see. In stark contrast, there is far less asabiya among the people my age among the young adults. I know most of them at least a little, and we are all a likeable group of people, but there’s not a great deal of social cohesion. Even though there is really only a handful of us in the congregation, I have only ever hung out with one of them at all. For whatever reason, we’re all just a bit more standoffish and distant with each other than the teenagers are. Part of that might be a matter of generation–I’m a late cohort Gen Xer, and we are notoriously independent as a group, while the teenagers I see are mid-to-late cohort Millennials, perhaps the most social-minded generation since the Greatest Generation some eighty years before. Lesson: asabiya is easy to see and hard to create.
And third, I would like to talk about an aspect of asabiya that I have discussed before on this blog. I am a member, albeit unwillingly, of a group of people called “singles.” Having not courted a young lady for about six years now (almost to the day), I find it rather unfortunate to be a part of this community. I’m pretty sure, judging from the sorts of e-mails and conversations I have with other singles of all ages, just about everyone in the group of singles is either rather unhappy to be alone or has resigned themselves to their state. There is little asabiya when it comes to singles. It is impossible to call a group a community when most people in it are trying to get out as quickly and completely as they can. This doesn’t mean that we don’t like each other as people, but rather that we actively hate the group we are labeled under, which does not lead to social cohesion (aka asaybia). On the contrary, there is a great deal of asabiya among married couples or families. Having a cute baby is a good way to draw people around to talk or hold the little one or pat it on the head or back as I tend to do. Most people long for relationships, marriage, and having children (or grandchildren), and so having these leads to additional social cohesion in being part of a community, whether it is of loved ones, their families, as well as any of the social institutions that cater to such people. Lesson: asabiya is destroyed when people are trying actively to leave an unwanted group, and built through depth of relationships that are desirable.
So, let us look at the three elements of asabiya that are fairly noticeable in the course of my life. First, property ownership and ownership in a community are often (though not always) related. The greater one’s stake in a community and the greater one’s own stability, the deeper one’s roots are and the greater a force you are for asabiya in your community. Second, age has a lot to do with asabiya, and asabiya is readily noticeable in the way people behave–how deep or shallow are their personal interactions? Third, asabiya is present only in groups where people actually want to be–which can then become communities, and do not tend to form where everyone is trying their hardest to escape the group they find themselves in through misfortune or a lack of good opportunities. These lessons in asabiya are all pretty simple and straightforward, and they can apply to many areas in life. It is useful to examine the sort of opportunities that exist in one’s life to see something that sounds exotic, but is in reality rather obvious and familiar to many of us, even if we often don’t have a language to describe it.