Civil Society in Perilous Muslim Democracies

Civil society works as the eyes and ears of a nation: it must be politically conscious, but neutral or at least non-partisan. A forceful civil society defends the weak from the strong and poor from the rich; strengthening it is a continuous and creative endeavour and its successful continuity should never be taken for granted.

The recent murder of a prominent human rights campaigner and opposition leader in Tunisia has rocked the country and opened up a serious crack in its fledgling democratic process. Far away from North Africa, the political upheaval in Bangladesh - over a flawed international tribunal trying Islamic leaders for alleged war crimes in 1971 - is pulling the country into a head-on collision between its secularist and Islamic camps. These are two historic Muslim countries with unique history, cultural background and social make up. But one common theme transcends both and, in fact, many other countries in Asia and Africa: it is their divided politics and chaotic civil society.

Civil society works as the eyes and ears of a nation: it must be politically conscious, but neutral or at least non-partisan. A forceful civil society defends the weak from the strong and poor from the rich; strengthening it is a continuous and creative endeavour and its successful continuity should never be taken for granted. Art, culture and public discourse are used to inform and educate citizens about their civic responsibilities and rights. The danger for any country, old or new democracy, is the polarisation of its politics and politicisation of its civil society.

For a robust civil society citizens do not necessarily have to be part of a big middle class or highly intellectual group. A culture of public duty and a drive for common good, justice and shared values are its allies; selfishness, partisanship and opportunism are its deadly enemy. Civil society often needs champions: individuals, institutions, or both. Martin Luther King in the US in the 1960s and Archbishop Tutu in South Africa today come to mind when thinking about individuals. Meanwhile, the historic Al-Zaytuna mosque in Tunisia and Al-Azhar University in Egypt - two of the oldest religious education institutions in the Muslim world - have played a unique 'institutional' role in creating strong civil society; they have the potential to do the same now in the conflict-stricken Middle East.

Civil society in developed democracies stubbornly takes both the government and the opposition to task. It remains highly alert in making sure citizens are not deprived of their rights, liberty and freedom by the powerful. Even if some errant politicians have temporary success in pushing the boundaries of power, such as President Bush Jr in the aftermath of 9/11, they are challenged tooth and nail by this ever-alive civil society. Through civil protests and ballot box, errors are either repaired or leadership is changed.

Sadly, civil society in many Muslim countries is not that effective. Over the last few decades only a handful of these nation-states have been able to cross the threshold of political peril and improve the socio-economic conditions of their people by means of representative governance and the rule of law. Although they have a long way to go, this is a positive sign.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are quite a few countries that are still at war with themselves; some lie under the long shadow of the 'war on terror', still going strong in the form of drone strikes and other actions. Perilous democracy is struggling to survive; politics is violently divided and civil society is embarrassingly weak in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, with their decades of intermittent democracy and military rule.

Pakistan's failure to democratise itself ended up in a violent war of liberation by the-then East Pakistani people in 1971. Pakistan in recent times has been torn apart by another menace - religious violence - thanks to the ineffective central government, long-unresolved sectarian divisions, and the 'war on terror' that was unleashed in the aftermath of 9/11. Civil society has been too weak to cope.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh also followed its own style of flawed family-led democracy and military rule over the past four decades. Home to one-fifth of the world's Muslim population, its economy has been growing well since the 1990s. But a vengeful politics under the current secularist government is putting the country in peril. Despite serious questions from the international community, including many judicial and human rights bodies, the current government has obstinately gone ahead with an 'international crimes tribunal' (without any international oversight) to punish alleged war of independence criminals who also happen to be political opponents from Islamic and nationalist parties). The ultra-secularist and leftist political partners of the ruling party, who dominate Bangladeshi civil society through the media and academia, and ruling party activists, are using their street power (with police support) to bring in capital punishment for opposition leaders who have been incarcerated for several years. A massive miscarriage of justice is now taking shape: whatever their crimes, this partisan approach to the rule of law - something critical to any healthily functioning civil society - may bring catastrophic consequences to the country and wide-ranging impact on its neighbours.

On the other hand Egypt and Tunisia, which are now being ruled by Islamic parties, are bogged down with their own crises: confrontation between ruling Islamic activists and a combination of secularists and supporters of the old regime. The real problem here is the clash between ultra-conservatives and ultra-secularists who are each vying for political gains. Sitting on these two extremes, anarchic forces are trying to derail the democratic process by street violence and destruction of national property. Again, the lack of a strong 'civil society' is being felt. However, there is a ray of hope. After weeks of violence, Egypt's premier Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, has brought together the country's rival political factions who pledged to work on halting violence.

In this maelstrom of re-birth, only constructive politics and political moderation from both Islamic and secular camps will safeguard democracy and protect these fledgling democracies from falling into further chaos.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and parenting consultant ( Follow him on Twitter:


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