Conferences, Workshops Content
|“Civil Society in the Maghreb”|
The Ismaili Centre June 2001
The concept of ‘civil society’ has been rediscovered recently and has, in a very short period, invaded the field of human and social sciences. One may wonder whether it should be considered a tool which helps analyse with greater accuracy and pertinence certain processes within contemporary societies or an expression which refers to new realities which have emerged recently and did not previously exist.
In some of his last writings, Ernest Gellner held that civil society, born in Western Europe, had to face two rivals: one was the Islamic umma and the centralised authoritarian or totalitarian systems (Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals. Penguin, 1994). Civil society has won the competition, but could not be extended into areas where a specific culture (the ‘Western’, specifically) had not prevailed (i.e. Muslim societies). Wajih Kawtharani argues that pre-modern societies in the Muslim environment had given birth to a kind of precursor of civil society, which he calls mujtama’ ahli (communitarian or parental society), since networks of social, economic and cultural action had to be set in order to manage public services independently from the State (The Project of Arab Renaissance: The Crisis of Evolution From Sultanian to National Social Forms. Lebanese University Press, 1996).
We have thus two symmetrical diagnoses: one is that civil society is not possible where Islam keeps a hold on minds and on social regulations. The other is that it is facilitated by particular traditions born within societies of Muslims. Can we assess the validity of these hypotheses through an examination of what happens in the Maghreb?
Pre-modern societies in the Maghreb had what we may call ‘minimal states’: the central authority (the sultan or ‘amir’) had a very weak presence and action in society, nothing to compare with the modern State’s hold. Local communities (cities, tribes) had to rely on themselves in the management of many functions, which are and sometimes were even at that time, considered as part of the duties of public authorities. This included mainly institutions of social solidarity and worship and even, sometimes, defence and internal security. Thus we can understand that the idea of self-help through organised networks of active institutions could be viewed as a kind of ‘proto’ or pre-modern civil society.
European colonisation and the modern State have disrupted the traditional social order. Post-independence states had to go through hard times in order to impose themselves in a hostile environment, while they had very limited human and financial resources. However they benefited from the legitimation provided by ideologies of nationalism, which prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s.
The model which was adopted was that of a state whose action is geared toward the modernisation of society through direct and authoritarian intervention. The dominant ideologies of the time were – in addition to nationalism – socialism, economic development, modernisation etc. This led the states in the Maghreb to adopt policies and styles profoundly different from those of states bound by law. The initial reaction of public authorities was generally hostile to local, sectorial and all other forms of spontaneous self-expression within society. Even in Morocco, where the monarchy preferred a multi-party system in order to prevent the consolidation of one strong political movement, the nationalist movement, the State remained for decades suspicious of any new form of autonomous expression or social organisation (Azzedine Layachi. State, Society and Democracy in Morocco: The Limits of Associative Life. Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies, 1998).
A fundamental change took place around 1989 with the subsequent demise not only of communism, but of all voluntarist, interventionist ideologies. The space left by the State during the following years, especially in matters related to helping the poor, is now filled by numerous associations. The urban elite which were mobilised in leftist movements have shifted their militantism from politics to social action.
So civil society is apparently there, if taken in the sense of networks of active associations and self-made or spontaneous organisations. It is clearly flourishing in areas from where the state has withdrawn. It is animated mainly by urban elite (university graduates, middle-class entrepreneurs, etc.) which seem to seek forms of social solidarity and humanitarian action. It is active mostly in urban areas, although remote rural areas are also taken into consideration. Some of the organisations are religious and are performing generally better, and going deeper within society, than secularist ones, even those who mobilise in favour of human rights (and more so, women’s rights). However, it is not a reincarnation (or revitalisation) of traditional forms of social action, nor of self-help organisations of the past.
Should we consider, as many analysts have done recently, that this evolution is rather negative? That this is only ‘fake’ civil society, too often manipulated by the State itself, and that it would never lead to a real birth of autonomous social initiatives? What if this was the start of a real turn in prevailing attitudes towards collective action?
On one hand, both Ernest Gellner and Wajih Kawtharani seem to have misinterpreted the ongoing evolutions. The ideal of the Islamic Umma is probably driving certain types of behaviour which are favourable to the birth and consolidation of civil society, in a sense never known in the past.
However, on the other hand, we may wonder whether the concept of civil society relates to a clearly identified and homogeneous reality. Forms of spontaneous organisation are so diverse, so context-specific (be it historical, geographical or cultural), so volatile sometimes that they may be expressions of things deeper, rather than the basic feature of particular forms of social order. Is ‘civil society’ not an arbitrary concept (at least in the diverse uses it is put to)?