Building Muslim Civil Society from the Bottom Up

Author: Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad*


Alexis de Tocqueville (2000), in his quintessential study of democracy in America, manifested great concern for the problem of how to assure that democracy could be developed in a way compatible with liberty.  It is an issue that is all too often lacking in Muslim discussions of the compatibility between democracy and Islam.  The French Revolution had demonstrated to Tocqueville how easily democratic structures could produce a tyranny of brutal proportions. The number of Muslim societies possessing the outward forms of democracy and yet operating as functional dictatorships should be sufficient proof to Muslims that Tocqueville’s concerns were well-placed.

Tocqueville’s conclusion was that American democracy had the advantage of the presence of a vital (and to large degree religiously based) civil society. There should also be no doubt that the existence of a robust civil society is an important element of Islamic society. Yet the virtual absence of the same is an indisputable hallmark of Muslim societies today. Such civil society as does exist, is either besieged, as under the Palestinians, or marginalized as in most Muslim countries. The history of democracies in the world suggests that a meaningful democracy cannot exist without a separate healthy functioning civil society that lies outside from the political sphere, although it may interact with it. The Muslim and Arab world have certainly demonstrated this, but the fact applies generally. One need only observe the colossal problems confronting the attempt to democratize Russia. This country has deliberately set upon a course of both democratization and liberalization, but has failed to date because the absence of civil society has left the Russian people without the attitudes necessary to exploit the opportunities that democracy and liberalism have afforded them. Familiarity with democratic process and civic action are best inculcated at the neighborhood level. Once they become second nature to the participants, they can conceivably carry them into a national forum.

Civil Society Defined

Before Hegel civil society was incorrectly identified with the state. Hegel had the insight that civil society is “the set of institutions that meet the needs of economic life and regulate people’s pursuit of their private affairs. “(Hegel as paraphrased in Adler 1980)I would go further. I contend that civil society is a third branch of society separate from both the government and the commercial sector. It includes the NGOs, the mosques and churches, the civic associations, charitable organizations, and the individual families that comprise the society. Their function is distinct both from the monopoly on force claimed by the government and from the profit-making function of the business sector. They have particular diverse missions that severally and collectively contribute to the quality of life in a given society.

Civil society is a mix of unity and diversity. Cranston (1980) notes that while it “requires a fair measure of shared adhesion to the same social and moral values,” it yet contains a “plurality of groups and individuals who have severally their own interests and aims. “He argues ideology is antithetical to such a society, threatening, in particular, the civility that is often associated with civil society, especially to the degree that ideology attempts to generate zealous devotion to the aims it wishes to impose upon the society. In this light, it should be unsurprising that classical Islamic society, wherein the religion was an organic and vital way of life, had a thriving civil society, while the modern attempts to redefine Islam as an ideology overlook or attempt to suppress this necessary aspect of society. In contrast, the United States in the nineteenth century could have a government utterly secular, in the sense that no religion was established nor was any religion suppressed, and yet the society itself was imbued with a firm religious foundation through the largely religious nature of the civil society.

Islamic Civil Society in History

Before I proceed with the claim that civil society is lacking in the modern Muslim world, it is worthwhile to take a glance back at Muslim history and to note that this was not the case in the “Golden Era” of the classical Islamic society. The greatness of that society, this audience surely appreciates, went far beyond military victories and shari`ah scholarship. The great achievements in the sciences, medicine, agriculture, urban growth, and international relations of all sorts were underpinned by a successful infrastructure that included that third sector independent from the state and financial institutions such as today would be called “big business. “

That infrastructure was developed in a highly decentralized manner. This fact and its significance are sorely under-appreciated today. For example, many people will point to the support of the sciences given by the Muslim rulers and wealthy patrons as an explanation for the scientific progress of the golden era. Such support was valuable, but it could not have been as successful as it was if the state had directly controlled the institutions of learning and research. Rather, those institutions were made independent through the establishment awqâf. The independent charters of the establishments, together with their generous endowments, enabled these institutions to be effective in ways that the state-controlled universities and research centers of the Muslim world cannot.

The same was true of the hospitals and clinics, in some cases even roads and canals upon which the great Islamic civilization was constructed. I have been struck by the similarities between these institutions and the private foundations that play such an important role in the vitality of Western civil society. The most important difference between those institutions and their modern Western counterparts for our purposes is that the modern West includes civic associations that are democratically organized and operated. The organizations are independent of the government, voluntarily organized to address the quality of the life of the citizenry both directly through social action and indirectly through consultation with the government. The members of these organizations form a popular electorate which directly elects the leadership and whose approval is required on the most important issues. Even the religious associations in the West employ this democratic structure.

In America, there is no doubt that it was from the New England “town meetings” and the congregationally-controlled churches (not to mention inspiration from the democratic tribal traditions of many of the native American tribes) that the early American colonists became acclimated to democratic methods and subsequently demanded that similar principles govern their independent states and ultimately the federal government.

The Failure of Civil Society in the Muslim World

Having defined civil society, we can quickly see the lack of same in the modern Muslim world. The question has properly been asked, how can we expect Muslims to take an interest in the election of political leaders when they take no part in the election of their mosque boards? One of the most dramatic moves that Warith Deen Mohammad took in transforming the Nation of Islam from the paramilitary structure he inherited from his father into the decentralized democratic bodies that are scattered around America today was to demand that the jamats directly elect their own imams. Now there is a man who is more interested in the welfare of his people than in his own power. Not only is such a practice not common in the Muslim world, it is not even common in the mosques founded by Muslim immigrants in America, where the imam is selected by the board instead of by the jamat.

The awqâf that exist in the Muslim world today are barely worthy of the name. Where they exist at all they are not truly independent endowments but are under the–often direct–control of the governments. One exception had been the case of the Palestinian social service agencies which, before Oslo, were actually independent of the Israeli occupiers. Although their effectiveness was limited by the constraints of occupation, the degree to which the Israelis allowed them to operate in the hopes that they would become an alternative to the P. L. O.  may have helped them. Certainly, the civil society in Palestine today under the patriarchal “support” of the PNA is in terrible shape. Of course, this is in part due to the additional constraints of closure on the welfare of the Palestinians, but Palestinian activists will testify to the stultifying effect of having to operate under the centralized structure of the PNA.

Another major issue in many Muslim countries, for example Pakistan, is the problem of corruption. (See, e. g. , Menon 1995, 1996). Corruption and waste are the unavoidable corollaries to politically controlled benefits. Prof.  James Buchanan of George Mason University received the Nobel Prize for his demonstration of how the problem of “public choice” affects these issues. Actors in politico-economic systems pursue their own interests at the same time that they are entrusted with care of the public or corporate interests. System designs that provide for a confluence of these interests tend to avoid corruption and waste while system designs that provoke a divergence of these interests lead to corruption and waste.

This is true even in the United States. For example, the 25% limit on overhead costs that the Combined Federal Campaign imposes on charitable organizations could not be met by government social welfare agencies, where the average overhead rate is over 60%. While it is true that some crooked charitable organizations have overhead rates over 90%, no one has to donate to these organizations, while payment of tax money to support wasteful government programs is compulsory.  

Techniques for Developing a Bottom-Up Civil Society

In my introduction, I asserted that “familiarity with democratic process and civic action are best inculcated at the neighborhood level. Once they become second nature to the participants, they can conceivably carry them into a national forum. “As is so often the case we must not separate the ends from the means. Instead of organizing and supporting top-down structured organizations pushing for “democracy” in the Muslim world, we must establish bottom-up organizations that will initially deal with the immediate concerns of their members and then spawn veterans who can form organizations with broader aims for the reform of society. The most obvious place to start is with the mosques themselves. This is what happened in the Muslim republics of the Soviet Union in days of its decline and imminent demise. Former government bureaucrats who had hidden their secret commitment to Islam would, upon retirement from government service, set themselves up as independent imams and conduct prayer services and religious educational activities independent of the “official” mosques with their state-appointed imams.

After the mosques, there come the schools and then later social service agencies and civic groups aimed at social betterment. The schools are the key element in the chain. It is through education that massive social change is wrought. But unless the schools themselves are structured as marketplaces of learning rather than as means of simple indoctrination, we engage in a self-defeating process. The students must be approached as independent agents being taught the essentials of independent original thought, rather than vessels to receive the pureed contents of our conclusions.

Note how the ever-recurring theme of ijtihâd arises again. We should treat every student as if we had hopes that he or she would some day become a mujtahid. Only if we are successful in this enterprise can we then expect them to go forth and create the kind of civil society of which I am speaking. Once they create it at the local level and the people become acclimated to their role as Allah’s khalifah can they move on to transforming society on a larger scale.  

But who is to do this work? And how? Surely, it should be obvious that the vanguard of the Islamist movement have been Western educated Muslims who, out of their experience in the West have developed a greater commitment to Islam than they could have had in their native lands. This has been true across the political spectrum, whether of those like Sayyid Iqbal, whose experience in the West inculcated a hatred for it, and a desire to reject what he perceived as corruption at its core, or to Ismail al-Faruqi whose experience gave him a critical appreciation of its strengths and the desire to “take back” that which we had given to the West. I previously mentioned the retirees in the former Soviet Union who played a role in establishing the Islamic revival in the Muslim commonwealths that have spun off from that fallen empire with no traditional formal religious training. Similarly, we note how so many of the leaders of the Islamic revival throughout the Muslim world are not traditionally trained imams, but engineers and doctors. It is from this same pool that we can develop the vanguard of the Islamic civil society movement.

And how shall we do that? Again, the means should reflect the ends. We must develop civil institutions to promote these ends. I will leave the details to other places and times, and even other thinkers. But I will give just one obvious example: We need multiple foundations offering scholarships to Muslim students in all disciplines who manifest an interest and a capability in developing Muslim civil society from the bottom up. Each such institution could have its own standards for deciding which students are most promising. In addition to scholarship grants that would enable them to attend the schools of their choice, they would participate in seminars in which they would be exposed to the principles I have addressed here as well as to whatever other aspects of “Islamization” and “civilization” are deemed important by the sponsoring organizations. Among them, these foundations would fund and facilitate the development of a diverse corps of young Muslim men and women prepared to return to their home countries and establish the grassroots civil society of which I have spoken. And some of them could be American Muslims who would infuse an injection of Muslim activists into America’s existing and vibrant civil society.

Allahu a`lam.

Dr. Ahmad is an internationally known interdisciplinary scientist of Palestinian descent, born at sea and raised in the United States. He is author of “Signs in the Heavens: A Muslim Astronomer’s Perspective on Religion and Science” and he teaches courses on Islamic religion, history and civilization at Wesley Theological Seminary. He also teaches courses on Islamic history and civilization for the summer interns program at the International Institute of Islamic Thought. Dr. Ahmad has received the “Star Cup for Outstanding Public Service” award from the Montgomery County Civic Federation, the “Champion of Democracy Award” from Marylanders for Democracy, the “Samuel P. Chase Freedom Award” from the Libertarian Party of Maryland, and the “Sentinel Award” from the Montgomery County Civic Federation. He is a long time Libertarian Party activist (and past president), and Libertarian Party Senate candidate.