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  • Rethinking Civil SocietyPluralism in the Arab World
  • Iliya Harik (bio)

In seven of the Arab world's twenty states—from Yemen on the Indian Ocean to Morocco on the Atlantic—a process of guarded democratization has been taking place. Ordinary citizens are receiving more opportunities to participate freely in politics, while economic privatization and the encouragement of free enterprise are also gathering steam. In both cases, functions once performed by government agencies are being fully or partially delegated to citizens and corporations, making for a more voluntaristic and self-regulated civil society.

In addition to discussing these liberalizing and democratizing trends in Arab countries, this essay also seeks to assess whether the growth of a flourishing "civil society" is a prerequisite for the installation of a democratic government or, alternatively, whether the development of a civil society and a democratic government may be pursued simultaneously.

Democratic governments function poorly, if at all, in the absence of certain explicit and implicit cultural practices and assumptions. A number of attitudes must be first ingrained in the social order, such as a certain degree of individualism, public-spiritedness, respect for and tolerance of others, and acceptance of winning and losing according to "the rules of the game." Indeed, a major reason for the emphasis placed on civil society is the belief that a democratic system of government planted in a hostile and alien culture is not likely to survive, let alone prosper. Can one find in Arab societies attitudes and concepts supportive of democracy? [End Page 43]

The first place to look is in the sphere of high culture. Is there a line of thought among the Arabs that can serve as a philosophical bedrock for the establishment of civil society? The Arab political tradition remains to this day tightly intertwined with Islamic doctrines and the historical precedents set by premodern Islamic states, which were typically ruled by authoritarian sultans. Islam itself contains the seeds of individual dignity and group integrity, understood as reflections of the divine spark that all the world's revealed religions confirm and celebrate. In this respect, Islam is similar to the natural rights idea, which also has its deepest roots in convictions about a divine order. Islamic thought is vast and complex; what concerns us here are those strains that may serve as a basis for the growth of civil society among Islamic peoples.

In Islam, one finds the idea of individual integrity juxtaposed with that of integral membership in the community (al jamaa'a), a dualism that has served those who preferred a strong civil society as well as those who wanted a strong and authoritarian system of government. Those today who favor civil society—mainly Muslim jurists scandalized by the injustices of autocratic governments—understand al jamaa'a in a sense consistent with the idea of civil society. Their major contribution has been to argue that the implementation of Islamic law is the preserve not of government but of Muslim leaders and councils at all levels of society working closely with their communities. We see this position stressed again now by contemporary Muslim writers such as Muhammad 'Abid al-Jaabiri of Morocco and Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi of Sudan. Arab believers in civil society today, however, are not confined to the religious tradition. Many, like the scholars at the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo, are secular and approach the subject from a liberal democratic point of view.

The more dominant line of thought—one widely held by Islamic revivalists—is that a Muslim government is an essential pillar of the Islamic religion. Fundamentalists take as their political cornerstone the belief that the main raison d'etre of government is the implementation of divine law (shari'a). While Muslims of this persuasion are not necessarily less committed to a reduced governmental role in society, in general they tend to leave less space for individuals and organizations and put more emphasis on the Islamic character of government. However, moderate advocates of the Islamic state have recently sought to present themselves as sympathetic to the notion of limited government. Certainly, adherence to the rule of law is cherished in Islam no less than in the West. Also favorable...


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pp. 43-56
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