UK / Europe — 08 August 2005

Some of the discussions of civil society, especially the orientalist ones, tend to focus on the structures of civil society to the detriment of its actual functions. In so doing the existence of civil society in hitherto underestimated forms can be overlooked. The family, for example, has a much more extended and interconnected character in Muslim societies than in the west. Dr Abdullah Robin examines a new Islamic paradigm for citizenship and civil society.

I am drinking black coffee at the funeral of a person I did not know, but I will not be seen as a gatecrasher: death and more importantly life, is not a personal affair here. I am drinking my coffee in a social city where civic virtue and social capital are abundant and the trust between people is strong. No, this is not America, which was once praised for its civil society and the role of its diverse associations in moulding social cohesion by the French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville: “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types-religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute…Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.” Since these words were written in the nineteenth century, however, the vitality of American civil society has been questioned; Robert Putnam and others have charted the decline in Americans’ participating in ‘secondary associations’, which hitherto provided a space, distinct from the organs of central government, for individuals to develop attitudes of public spiritedness and trust.

The city where strangers now meet to console each other following bereavement is not in America, but in another corner of the world; an unexpected corner where society has endured many assaults: this city is Hebron in the Israeli occupied West Bank under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority.

Hebronite society is considered staunchly conservative, its 200,000 almost wholly Muslim population adheres to strong family values and the families here have strong ties to themselves and to their neighbours. These ties have held people together in some form of civil society during the decades of Israeli occupation and continue to do so under the still fledgling Palestinian Authority, which despite its name has actually very little authority over people’s lives here. Problems and disputes over trade, inheritance and the like are normally settled by gatherings of the large extended families of the disputants in their ‘diwans’ (family halls used for formal gatherings) and what helps to foster fairness in these meetings are generally shared values, the interrelatedness of families through marriage and a rich range of social customs. If one family takes away something from the right of another it will be common knowledge in the city and there will be many routes of intercession for the aggrieved party. The social customs of the city, even the customs of death, where the bereaved family will be in mourning for three days and will set up an area for receiving well wishers with coffee during those days (‘azaa) help to cement bonds between people with otherwise competing private interests. After finishing my own coffee I got up to leave and as I said words of condolence to the family of the deceased, I realised that I was not a complete stranger: I recognised one of the cousins of the deceased, standing at the reception area for arriving and departing guests, and briefly renewed my acquaintance before leaving with two old friends that I met by chance and had not seen for a long time; we exchanged news at a nearby restaurant, over ‘konaafa’ made from a sweet sticky substance covering goat’s milk cheese that tastes a lot nicer than a westerner might expect from the description. By the constancy of such customary meetings and the multiplication of new and renewed acquaintances each week bonds are strengthened and values are shared.

Civil society in the Muslim world is currently the target of growing interest amongst those concerned with democratisation, but most of the discussion about the subject falsely equates civil society with democracy and overlooks the nature of civil society already present in the undemocratic Middle East. Writers such as Bernard Lewis, who encouraged the failed attempt to forcibly democratise Iraq, have gone as far as to state that there is no concept of a citizen in classical Islamic political thinking. The context of this assertion was a Foreign Affairs article for May/June 2005 entitled ‘Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East’; citizenship, or rather the lack of it, was one of the suggested obstacles to the democratisation of the Middle East. That tyranny reigns in the Middle East is beyond question, but that citizenship and civil society are absent and that their existence or strengthening would promote democracy are both highly questionable. Before extending the discussion of civil society in the Muslim world, however, let us first build a framework for discussion by returning to the most well studied and talked about civil society in the world: America, which exemplifies both strengths and weaknesses in terms of civil society.

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