Monday, January 23, 2012

‘Civil’ does not have to be ‘Irreligious’

Muslims do contribute to the development of civil society in Europe and the west in general. However, there are fundamental problems in the very definition of ‘civility’ that is used by a number of scholars and media domains. These definitions aim to exclude anything ‘Islamic’ from the concept of ‘civility.’ As such, we will present four fundamental flaws in popular definitions of civility, namely, the ‘secular’ condition, essentialist concepts, the ‘ideology’ objection, and the biased ideal. Thus, approaching the concept of ‘civility’ through the core values of tolerance, trust, reciprocity, and cooperation helps provide a fairer and more universal definition that avoids the above problems.
Basic Definition
Shils provides a basic working definition for civil society:
The idea of civil society is the idea of a part of society which has a life of its own, which is distinctly different from the state, and which is largely in autonomy from it. Civil society lies beyond the boundaries of the family and clan and beyond the locality; it lies short of the state.[1]
Building on this basic framework, civil society will be understood as the realm loosely located between the family and the state, in which individuals participate through structures of independent voluntary associations, networks or discursive space. Within these, a number of values must be dominant, chiefly amongst them are: trust, tolerance, cooperation, and reciprocity; individuals may attempt to empower themselves through identifying notions that will lead to their personal and societal development, happiness, and satisfaction; and individuals pursue their interests, engage others in contesting discourses, and compete over notions of the common good.
The ‘Secular’ Condition
However, civil society is often utilised as a normative tool, which, it is claimed, must embrace ‘secular politics.’ Thus, the behaviours, norms and practices that are perceived to run against secular (or liberal) politics are seen by some as incongruous with the project of civil society and the concept of ‘civility’ itself. While we assert that some groups that are at war with civility should be clearly excluded from a civil society definition, religious groups, in general, and other forms of organization that are simply different from the dominant Eurocentric worldview of modernity and progress, must not be excluded. As Glasius argues “…[C]ivil society is not the exclusive domain of ‘progressive’ human rights, environmental, social justice and women’s rights activists, it is a space co-inhabited by conservatives, anti-abortionists, and religious fundamentalists.”[2] Such groups are equally relevant to the sphere in which dominant discourses are challenged and competing views are put forward.
Essentialist Concepts
Many theoretical concepts of civil society and civility focus on an essentialism that is explained by culture and religion. The arguments seem to have originated from the old ‘orientalist’ approach, which has now been widely criticised for its erroneous assumptions, especially concerning the Islamic culture and religion. Essentialists argue that ‘Islam’ itself is an absolute impediment to the development of civic values and institutions.[3] Kamrava, for example, states that “Islam…in its current militant form poses an immovable obstacle to social and cultural democratisation.”[4] This view is by and large similar to other views expressed by Elie Kedourie, Bernard Lewis, Albert Hourani, and Samuel Huntington.
Nevertheless, Clark, Göle, Kandil, and others, prove through field work and sound analysis that Islamic organisations have an important function in civil society. Clark shows that a danger in analyses has been the blurring between the minority of violent Islamist groups and the majority of non-violent Islamist groups and movements.[5] Göle, in fact, in her study on Turkey, speaks of the creation of an autonomous sphere in society due to Islamic values and the Islamicisation of politics.[6] Also, looking specifically at Arab women, Kandil recognises that religion plays a key role as a motivating factor for their voluntary initiatives since it encourages them to volunteer time and give charity and thus enables them to assume a profound role in civil society.[7]
On the other hand, Rachid Ghannouchi cautions that the civil society concept, as developed in the West, has been situated as oppositional to a religious society. In his view, the roots of this conflict come from French cultural history, which witnessed a violent conflict between the church and the French revolution. The result of this conflict was the idea that religion and ‘civility’ cannot be one and the same thing. When scholars apply the idea of civil society to Islamic forms of organising, they fail to consider the connotations associated with the term. Ghannouchi asserts that Islam is ‘naturally strengthening to civility.’[8]  
The ‘Ideology’ Objection
Another fundamental flaw in the assertion that Islamic forms of activism fall short of ‘civility’ is that its supporting research has been directed to certain Islamist ‘ideological’ groups only. In addition to the arbitrary usage of the word ‘ideology,’ the conclusions of scholars who focus on some forms of Islamist politics cannot be applied squarely to the much wider circle of Islamic activism. The blurring of distinctions here is very dangerous because ‘Islamism’ is often used interchangeably with ‘terrorism,’ especially in the media. Thus, Muslim contribution to Western civil society become mistakenly labelled as some form of activism that is similar to, for example, the Ku Klux Klan, the Mafia, or other terrorist organisations. These organisations cannot contribute to the strengthening of civility since they demonstrate intolerance and violence.[9] However, excluding Islamic forms of organisation merely because their missions and agendas are guided by ‘ideology,’ means ignoring the fact that, as well as possibly contributing to civility, they can be the most effective means for responding to the needs of citizens.[10]
A Biased Yardstick
And yet another problem found within civil society works is the yardstick which has always been western civilization in its white Christian imagery, particularly the United States. When scholars of civil society apply the concept to communities of predominantly ‘other’ regions and religions, the result is that the activisms of these communities never live up to the idealised ‘western’ context. Norton rightly warns of the tendency to idealise civil society.[11] Hann asserts that Western scholars are propagating an ideal of social organisation which, in fact, bears little relation to current realities within western civilisation.[12] Hefner explains that scholars who follow a “culturalist” line of analysis base their conclusions on the belief that what he terms a “civil democracy” rests upon a constellation of values and institutions unique to the West. Thus, when comparisons of ‘civility’ are made between the assumed ‘white Christian west’ and other communities, a hierarchy still remains. As such, when institutions of ‘other’ origins are measured for “civility”, they are left without worth.
Hann believes it is the responsibility of all human communities to seek and create a version of civil society, and that the “burden of scholarship” is to investigate these different versions.[13] But in order to compare these versions, scholars must then “shift the debates about civil society away from formal structures and organisations and towards an investigation of beliefs, values and everyday practices.”[14]
And because values such as mutual trust and respect, tolerance, reciprocity, and cooperation are characteristic of communal life, the function of civil society rests upon the cultivation and practice of “civility.” 
            While “tolerance towards the other”, most often defined as synonymous with ‘civility’, a wider range of “civil acts”, or what are referred to as “values” for the normative part of civil society, and is here considered within the term ‘civility’. We agree with Schwedler that “(a) tolerance toward those with different views is paramount.”[15] We also agree
Participation means some active involvement on part of a group of volunteers, be their activism religious-based or otherwise. Participation is said to occur when people organise around specific interests and negotiate and collaborate to reach particular ends. As such, one could make a quantitative assessment with an inquiry in terms of volunteerism levels, growth in numbers of participants, activities/programmes and size of the structures that accommodate larger numbers of people.However, qualitative are crucial for understanding how Islam contributes to participation in the west. As such, under the variable of participation, one must include the values, such as those ascribed to Islam as a belief system, which can be put into practice by the participants and influence society.
Volunteerism is a core Islamic value that, if activated, Muslims could contribute to western civil societies. A Muslim volunteer seeks a very high reward from God alone, and hence is highly motivated for the service of society. The Quran mentioned this concept in numerous ways in hundreds of verses. For example:
Al-Baqara, 62: All who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds-shall have their reward with their Sustainer
Al-Baqara, 262: a doer of good withal, shall have his reward with his Sustainer; and all such need have no fear, and neither shall they grieve.
Al-Imran, 145: And if one desires the rewards of this world, We shall grant him thereof; and if one desires the rewards of the life to come, We shall grant him thereof.
Al-Maida, 93: God loves the doers of good.
Hud, 51: O my people! No reward do I ask of you for this [message]:my reward rests with none but Him
Al-Layl, 19-21: not as payment for favours received, but only out of a longing for the countenance of his Sustainer, the All-Highest: and such, indeed, shall in time be well-pleased.
However, although there is a certain level of volunteerism within Muslim communities, it is one of the Islamic values that need enhancement in the current reality, quantitatively and qualitatively.
            (2) The empowerment process has traditionally been left out of the analysis of social movements and associational activism. Empowerment is a crucial component to include within the Muslim discourse on civil society in the west. As such, it is important to emphasise the empowerment as also comprising a process whereby marginalized groups become able to organise themselves to assert their independent right to make choices and to control resources which will assist in challenging and eliminating their own subordination and framing by a dominant discourse.[16] As we know, Muslims are increasingly being framed away from harbourers of civility to harbourers of extremism and terrorism. Defining empowerment as such removes emphasis from the sources of oppression that Muslims may face, and instead gives greater focus to the agency of Muslim communities in their own right.
With the same token we also need to decipher an empowerment process between marginalised sections and dominant sections within Muslim communities through the implementation of the Islamic basic value of equality of human being. The Prophet (peace be upon him) asserts: ‘People are equal like the teeth of a comb.’[17] When, for example, women’s choices are limited and their roles confined to a specific function through reference to a discourse, in our case an Islamic discourse, women may become politically, economically, or educationally disadvantaged. If Islamic symbols are contributing to wider gaps between groups within Muslim communities or the subordination of its parts, then Islamic references are missing the Islamic values themselves and cannot contribute to the flourishing of civil societies in Europe or the west.
to the study of civil society, there are further important indicators, such as trust,  reciprocity, (d) and cooperation. We had explained in detail, elsewhere, how these values are part and parcel of a teleological (maqasidi) philosophy of Islam.[18]
            Therefore, approaching the concept of ‘civility’ through the core values mentioned above offers a fairer and more universal definition that avoids the fundamentals problems analysed in this article.

[1]Edward Shils, 1992, “The Virtue of Civil Society,” Government and Opposition, vol. 26, no. 1 (winter), p. 3.
[2] Marlies Glasius, 2005, “Who is the Real Civil Society? Women’s Groups versus Pro-Family Groups at the International Criminal Court Negotiations”, in Jude Howell and Diane Mulligan, eds.,Gender and Civil Society, London: Routledge, p. 224.
[3] Carapico 1996, p. 288.
[4] Ibid., p. 226.
[5] Clark, 1994, p. 35.
[6] Nilüfer Göle, 1994, “Towards an Autonomization of Politics and Civil Society in Turkey”, in Metin Heper, ed., Politics in the Third Turkish Republic, Boulder: Westview Press, p. 221.
[7] Amani Kandil, 1999, “Women and Civil Society”, in Civil Society at the Millennium, Civicus, Connecticut: Kumarian Press, p. 63. Kandil (1999, p. 63).
[8] Rached Ghannouchi,1999, Muqarabat fi al-`ilmaniyya wal-mujtam‘ al-madani [Papers on Secularism and Civil Society], London: Maghreb Center for Research and Translation,p. 83.
[9] Word Reference Com: World Dictionary. accessed 5 May, 2006.
[10] Schwedler 1995, 16.
[11] Norton 1996, p. 5.
[12] See Antoun’s discussion on the civil society concept with reference to Chris Hann’s contribution to the term, in Antoun 2000, p. 445.
[13] Antoun 2000, p. 445.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Jillian Schwedler, 1995, “Introduction”, in Jillian Schwedler, ed., Toward Civil Society in the Middle East? A Primer, Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner, 6.
[16] For example, Brooke Ackerly, 1997, “What’s in a Design? The Effects of NGO Programme Delivery Choices on Women’s Empowerment in Bangladesh”, in Anne Marie Goetz, ed., Getting Institutions Right for Women in Development. London: Zed Books, p. 141.
[17] Narrated by al-Hakim in Al-Mustadrak ˒Ala Al-Sahihayn (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-˒ilmiyyah, 1990), vol.2, p.340.
[18] Ibid.

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