Civil Society in the Arab World: Historical Traces, Contemporary Vestiges

By Ismael, Tareq Y.; Ismael, Jacqueline S. | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Civil Society in the Arab World: Historical Traces, Contemporary Vestiges


Ismael, Tareq Y., Ismael, Jacqueline S., Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


Is civil society possible in the Arab world? The sociologist, Max Weber, thought not. Writing in the late Nineteenth Century, he maintained that the norms of Arab culture were incompatible with the rational demands of capitalism and democracy. Both are considered pre-requisites of civil society. This essay examines the argument in terms of theoretical formulations on civil society and Weber's position. The historical record of Arab civilization is reviewed to argue that the emergence of civil society is neither unique to Western culture nor is Arab culture inherently incompatible with the rational demands of civil society.

CIVIL SOCIETY: THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES

The notion of civil society is Western in origin. It came into existence through the endeavors of Western political philosophers to understand the complex relationships among individual, state and economy as Western society was undergoing qualitative and quantitative changes through the dynamics of industrialization, urbanization and bureaucratization. The concept of civil society first appeared in the late 18th Century and reverberated through the intellectual debates of the second half of the Nineteenth Century, then fell out of fashion. In the 1970s, interest in the concept rekindled.(1)

The contemporary conceptualization of civil society is rooted in Hegel's approach which viewed it as a manifestation of the bourgeoisie's attempt to organize and harmonize conflicting interests within its body.(2) Although the associations of civil society are assumed to be independent of the state, they cannot operate outside the law as the law is a prerogative of the state. A degree of harmony between state and civil society, in other words, is a prerequisite for civil harmony.

Antonio Gramsci conceptualized civil society in terms of the superstructure which justifies the socio-economic formation of bourgeoisie capitalism. The ideological underpinnings of both the state and civil society are inherent in this superstructure. While a state may function to maximize its authority, the associations of civil society function to forestall state encroachment on personal autonomy. Civil harmony is possible because of the ideological compatibility between the state and civil society.(3) This suggests that where this ideological compatibility is not inherent in the superstructure, civil disharmony would prevail. If the relationship between civil society and the state is a function of ideological context, it follows that the conditions of civil harmony are historically specified, as are the conditions of civil strife. The configuration of civil society in Western culture, as well as its relationship to the state, is a historically specific manifestation of bourgeoisie organization.

Conceptualized as voluntary association in the nexus between state and economy, civil society constitutes a link between the spheres of personal and public identity in the institutional infrastructure of society.(4) The main idea underlying the concept is that of a plurality of voluntary associations capable of opposing the ideological monopoly of the political and economic order.(5) As such, civil society reflects the normative tensions within such cultural dichotomies as collective and individual, status and power,(6) cooperation and competition, violence and non-violence.(7) As an indicator of culture, civil society manifests the relationship between symbolic meaning and purposeful action in substantive form.(8)

WEBER'S PERSPECTIVE ON THE ARAB WORLD

Weber's sociology of Islam and the Islamic city founded the theoretical backdrop against which the West perceived Islamic culture. His analysis was grounded in the Mameluk period,(9) (1250-1517), a period characterized by the decline of both state and culture. Weber's analytic framework was based on two themes. First, his notion of Bedouin warrior nobles (in this case, Arab tribes)(10) who are drawn to prophetic religious movements when such movements contain beliefs which are specifically relevant to the occupational interests of a warrior status group. …

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