Empowering Syrian Civil Society

Empowering Syrian Civil Society

Tamara Al-Om
University of Exeter, UK

Submitted as part of a panel on Syria at the BRISMES 2011 Conference.

When I initially started writing this paper things in Syria were relatively calm, with President Bashar Al Assad stating that an uprising in Syria, as had been witnessed in numerous Arab countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, was unlikely to transpire in the same way. There was an overwhelming silence on the Syrian streets which was explained, at least in part and to varying degrees, on two main levels, socio-economic or internal factors and political and ideological or external factors.  If we are to first consider the latter, which would include such things as the government’s cool relations with the West, the subsequent sanctions placed upon it, its lack of a relationship with Israel and its unwillingness to submit to foreign demands – we would find that most are perceived as a strength of the Syrian government which gained significant support of the Syrian people. The socio-economic issues that were attributed to the silence on the streets were the recent introductions of subsidies to public workers, aid to the poorest families, and certain changes, reforms and concessions which opened up the country to a number of products and services that had previously been completely inaccessible, most notably the internet and foreign investment and trade – which were perceived to at least temporarily ease the needs of the people.

In addition to these factors, Assad appeared to be aware of the need for political and social reform while being perceptive of the particularities of Syrian society. He was fast learning that times had changed and that immediate action was needed, showing himself to be up to the learning curve that a number of other Arab leaders had failed to embark upon. According to Assad, those governments which only attempt to make changes and bring in reforms as a result of these recent events taking place across the Arab world, are already too far behind and are unlikely to be impervious to the expression of discontent by their own people. In this way, his initial reactions to the events taking place in neighbouring Arab countries seemed to present a unique opportunity for real change to occur. Assad’s articulation of a reformist agenda and the steps already taken towards implementing a number of these reforms, resulted in, as Sadiki highlights, many of us giving him the benefit of the doubt, in contrast to Gaddafi or Mubarak. However it seemed that the dissatisfaction of the Syrian people was greater than perceived, and their desire for opportunities, representation, equality and empowerment was far greater than anticipated. These minor concessions that had been made by the Syrian government were clearly not enough to hold back the infectious[1] feelings and desires for freedom. Unfortunately, our perception of the moderate position of Assad was also erroneous, with the responses of the Syrian government towards peaceful protestors being extreme, violent and indiscriminate.

Civil Society in Syria

In recent years, the issue of civil society had come to the foreground in Syria, especially following the first International Development Conference held in January 2010, organised by the Syria Trust for Development, a non profit organisation established in 2007. The conference focused on the emerging role of civil society in development and was attended by an array of international experts and Syria’s first lady, Asma Al Assad. Civil society had also been on the agenda in both the 10th and 11th Five Year Plans, with workshops and initiatives being established to further investigate and develop civil society in the advancement of Syria as a nation. These included such things as laws granting a modern legal framework to civil society and Non Governmental Organisations,[2] as well as the development of locally based and EU-Syrian partnership projects that support the advancement of rural districts, rights of women, higher education standards and the promotion of culture as a means of increasing the role of civil society. It appeared that “the government want[ed] to open up more space for civil society to grow, breathe and develop.”[3] On the other hand, Al-Aous highlights the significant limitations of the official understanding of the term “today, state-sponsored civil society can claim to function on behalf of charities or groups working for social progress. With these concepts established, the state can refuse to recognise any organisation that lies outside its narrow definition”[4]. This also extends to any individuals that may be seen as ‘harming the security of the state’ who may have no political affiliations but are simply critical of certain aspects of government policies. While this was certainly evident with the continuous suppression of the voices of political activists, civil society activists, human rights activists, bloggers and artists especially following the Damascus Spring of 2000[5], it has become even more apparent with the recent actions of the Syrian army – crushing almost all hope of a flourishing, vibrant and active civil society.

Civil Society

So how can we go beyond this limited conception of civil society and extend it to the elements that have been largely and purposely neglected, such as the issues of ideology and the promotion and development of the principles of democracy, human rights and human freedom?

“It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.”[6]

It is precisely this empowerment of civil society that is of central interest to this paper. What we have been witnessing since the beginning of this year, 2011, across the Arab world is symptomatic of the importance of the presence and freedom of civil society. It has been a result of the suppression of civil society, and its lack of representation in the state that has forced people to go onto the streets and demand their rights – to have their voices heard and to take hold of their stake in the country. We should take from this unique moment in Arab history an opportunity to re-assess, re-establish and re-build not just the institutions necessary for civil society, but also our very conception of civil society, what it should entail and the role it should play in representing society within the state itself. This need for a critical reflection of the role of civil society within the state extends beyond the Arab world since the dissatisfaction towards governments can be felt across the globe, including those of the ‘democratic’ West, in the wake of the economic recession, increasing unemployment rates, higher costs of living and a decrease in opportunities and in the quality of life, at least for the majorities. There is clearly a fundamental flaw in our conception of the role of the state in society and of the role of society in the state.

Any attempts so far to move towards ‘democracy’ in the Arab world have failed, whether that has been a result of a combination of internal and external factors, or a result of the democratically elected parties not being tolerated internationally. The war in Iraq has failed to really show any hope for stability, let alone democracy. Although actions taken by certain governments towards oppositional groups or dissidents are condemned in the media, Western governments rarely put pressure on these governments to change or ‘reform’. Acts of economic liberalisation are applauded and rewarded while acts of suppression in defiance of political or social reform are often overlooked – with the implementation of foreign policies towards political and social liberalisation always remaining on the back burner, on an extremely low heat. More often than not it is the interests of these Western governments that trump the principles they claim to be at their foundation – ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’. There has traditionally been an over emphasis upon the need for ‘free and fair elections,’ but no real critical awareness with regard to the necessary foundations that need to be established in order for real representative elections to occur.

This point of establishing the necessary foundations of democracy was the focus of President Bashar Al Assad in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in January, which seems almost incongruous to use now. “If you want to start, you have to start with one, two, three, four… you cannot start with six and then go back to one. For me, number one is… how to upgrade the whole society… Reform could start with some decrees but real reform is about how to open up the society, and how to start dialogue.”[7]

So how do we open up society and engage it in dialogue?

According to Habermas, it is within the realm of an active, vibrant and free civil society that the diverse voices of the people, of the social community will find their ground in order to be able to participate in critical public discourse and engage in constructive dialogue. In this way, it is in the presence of an indigenously cultivated civil society, one that nurtures free and open, creative discourse, that the people will have a concrete stake in their country, where they can play an active role in the development and future of their homeland.

Civil society, recently re-emerging in mainstream debate, has become synonymous with the idea of a strong working democracy,[8] being one of the foundational ‘building blocks’ of a free society. It is however, still a highly debated term, both within Arab and Western discourse. In order to explore this in more detail, and gain a deeper insight into the role of an empowered civil society in a strong democracy, we will turn to a genealogical reflection of the emergence of the term and its development both in Western and Arab discourse.

Civil Society in Western Discourse

If we are to reflect upon the historical emergence of the concept of civil society, it becomes clear, as Keane highlights, that its very foundations are built upon ideas of inequality, domination and eurocentrism. Civil society was constructed under the guise of the civilised European male, not only as a means of distinguishing the ‘civilised’ European from the ‘uncivilised other’, but also, as a means of the exclusion of women. Having once been a term used in terms of positive sentiments, it has increasingly been viewed as part of a vocabulary of domination. At the same time, throughout its historical development, the concept of civil society has undergone vast transformations, indeed, as we have witnessed in the context of recent political events, being appropriated as a concept which would safeguard universal human rights.  In light of this, it is necessary to critically assess the concept of civil society, not only when it comes to exploring non-European cultures and societies, but also, when exploring contemporary Western society which has itself radically changed – and continues to change – since the early developments of the notion of civil society. If we are seriously interested in building and maintaining a strong democracy, our conception of civil society must be able to adapt, accommodate and represent the myriad diversity of voices across society and societies.

The origins of the term are usually traced back to the early Greek philosophers, especially with regards to Aristotle’s notion of a koinonia politike, more commonly termed a polis – a political community which encompasses a state that is undifferentiated from society. For Cicero, of Roman tradition, civil society, societas civilis is also deeply entwined with the state. Civil society entails the assemblage of groups and individuals who are united with respect to justice and the common good which are then organised by laws and institutions of the state. This view of civil society dwindled with the emergence of the Church as a governing force of state and society. Ironically, it was the Arab and Islamic philosophers of the ninth and tenth centuries who preserved these early European notions, in an attempt to unify these ideas with the ideals of Islam.  It was this preservation which led to the Renaissance and the rebirth of Western political philosophy.

It was following Hobbes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the state “rose to define, limit and enforce moral alternatives to God’s order.”[9]  However, due to our apparent nature to pursue our own interests there was a danger of a war of ‘all against all’ (bellum omium contra omnes) which seemingly necessitated a powerful state that could maintain civility. It was in an attempt to avoid these threats that we would be more likely to join together in agreement and surrender sovereignty to a common power,[10] the state.

Although Locke was close to Hobbes in his ideas on political society, he found problems with the absolute sovereign. In order to deal with this, not only did the people have to submit to a common public authority, which would enact and maintain laws, but the authority should also have limitations placed upon it, namely upon its ability to threaten the basic rights of human beings, which included the ‘preservation of life, liberty and property’.[11] Across Europe, philosophers[12] attempted to deal with this absolutism with proposals for alternative conceptions of civil society which would focus upon the development of associational spaces, of environments for societal negotiations, of civility, and of publicity.[13] It was civility, according to Ferguson and Hume, that could create the social cohesion necessary to develop the networks of self governing and self regulating voluntary associations which could at least in part harmonise an increasingly fragmented society.

Adam Smith, contemporary to these debates on the limits and power of the state, wanted to make a clean break between the civilised society of economic activity and the political sphere of the state in an attempt at liberating labour, capital, land and goods from the regulations and control of the state. It was for this reason that civil society needed to incorporate the realms of the law and the “administration of justice” and the “corporation” – voluntary associations of those sharing vocation, purpose, or interest.[14]

For Kant, civil society, bürgerliche gesellschaft is a requirement for social stability in thus being a means of dealing with this fragmentation in society. It is in this realm of civil society – which requires its members to respect and abide by what Rousseau called the social contract – that the use of a universal practical reason in debating issues of governance, which comes into play ‘beyond the political order’ or ‘beyond the particularistic concerns of political action’, acts as a restraint to the absolute power of the ruler, while at the same time legitimising that power.  As Rousseau writes, in the opening lines of his Social Contract:

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not   know.  What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.”[15]

It is unclear whether Kant saw civil society as distinct from the state, since he is often found to equate one with the other.  Yet, it would appear, as Seligman argues, that the rational debate and critique that Kant speaks of, which occurs in the space of civil society, occurs “beyond the political order”,[16] and therefore, beyond the realm of the state. It is in this public sphere of civil society that individuals have total freedom of expression, so long as they fall within the limits of public reason. The distinction between the use of private and public reason is clear in the command of a strong leader who can say “argue as much as you want and about what you want, but obey!”[17] For Kant, an individual’s use of private reason is limited and restricted by certain roles and duties they must fulfil; however, in the public realm individuals should have the freedom to use reason in all matters.

Hegel responded to Kant’s call for a ‘system of reason’ with his need for a critical reflection on the role of the state and civil society – in which he wanted to develop an understanding of a complex organic system of necessity and freedom, necessity being met by the state and freedom being met by civil society which embodies “the principle of the self-subsistent infinite personality of the individual, the principle of subjective freedom.”[18] This freedom is achievable only through action – manifested through the development of “the system of needs”[19] which ultimately leads to the actualisation of Bildung.[20] In this way, although civil society is on a parallel domain with the state, a clear distinction has to be made between the state and civil society, which are both subsumed, along with the family, under the realm of ‘ethical life’, ‘sittlichkeit’.

In the end, it is the ethical realm that is the intimation of the state conceived beyond the merely political realm of facticity, one which intimates a totality of involvements in which civil society for Hegel, is conceived of as a ‘moment’ within the life of the ‘absolute’. It is from this unity of the ethical realm that civil society is both preserved and safeguarded.  Nevertheless, from within the context of the ethical realm, civil society must also be constrained by certain limits which Hegel saw as vital for the ‘taming and mastery’ of a potentially ‘wild beast’.[21] In this way, Hegel diagnosed a chaotic contemporary society that had the potential, through the extremes of wealth and poverty in bourgeois society, to destroy the productivity of individuals pursuing their self interest.[22]   Hegel, recognising the importance of economics for social, political and cultural life,[23] proceeded to reframe the meaning of civil society into a much more narrow understanding as an aspect of, or a ‘moment’ in modern society which is “based on private enterprise, free markets and modern forms of production and exchange.”[24] But, it became the role of the state to regulate the ‘system of needs’ so as to fulfil the aspirations of civil society, and thus to preserve the integrity of the ethical realm.  Hegel saw the dangers of an unregulated capitalist economy, which would always consist of natural inequalities, which could never totally be overcome but could be dealt with, at least in part, by establishing certain measures, such as taxation and limitations on profit.  It becomes apparent that it was following Hegel that a radical shift in discourse takes place and the role of the state in civil society as well as the role of civil society in the state is radically brought into question, creating the “emergence of the various social sciences that went on to explore the domain carved out by the term”[25].

Marx, one of his dissident students, sought to clarify the apparent contradictions in Hegel’s conceptions of the state, civil society, and political economy.  The central flaw in Hegel’s notion consisted not only in the state becoming a guarantor of socio-economic exploitation and domination, but also, with the identification of civil society with the economy, of the suppression of a conception of civil society that would be empowered with respect to both the state and the economy – and which would necessitate the eventual democratisation of the state and the economy.  Marx departed from the Master with his own immanent criticism of not only the destructive potential of bourgeois society, but also of the basic contradiction that was apparent between its principles and its practice. Marx looked to this tension as a means for social action that would have the potential to transform economic relations in civil society. Other thinkers, including Gramsci (whose Notebooks were written during a decade of imprisonment under Mussolini, which ended only with his death), followed in Marx’s conception of civil society as a “special nucleus of independent political activity, a crucial sphere of struggle against tyranny”.[26] In this way, Marx not only saw civil society as distinct from the state, but saw it as preceding and determining the state – therefore unlike Hegel, the absolute for Marx begins with the people, with the reality on the ground, for it is the concrete reality of society that determines history, and not the other way around.

Further distinguishing civil society, not only from the state and the family, as Hegel did, Tocqueville extended this distinction to the realm of religion and its authorities. Gramsci also reframed civil society as a realm for problem solving, which influenced many of the contemporary thinkers to see civil society as a key player in defending the people against the powers of the state and in asserting the people’s democratic will over the state. The economy and market also became a realm that was seen to need to be distinguished from civil society, especially with the development of an increasingly capitalist, market orientated society that was in fact proving to be putting the majority at a significant disadvantage.

In this light, Habermas, who re-established many of the terms of the contemporary debate, conceptualised civil society in terms of culture and the need for a communicative space which would allow for democratic practices and values to evolve. This notion derives largely from Kant’s notion of ‘consensus’ and the need to develop a universal rational foundation for democratic institutions. Foucault is in rare agreement with Habermas upon the importance of Kant and the significance of ‘rationality’, however, he warns that “to respect rationalism as an ideal should never constitute a blackmail to prevent the analysis of the rationalities really at work.”[27] In this way, Foucault follows more closely Nietzsche’s ideology of ‘conflict’, ‘power’ and ‘real history’, wirkliche Historie. In this way, it is only through a genealogical exploration of concrete histories that we will be able to understand the ‘context of emergence’[28] of our societies through a reflection upon the power relations that have given rise to various social arrangements and practices.

We must attempt to rethink the notion of civil society within our own context to empower civil society so as to create the concrete conditions for political, social and cultural change. If we are to take ‘real history’ as a starting point then we must start from the concrete and not the ideal – we must focus upon substantive action and discourse and not merely upon formal institutional criteria which would remain non-participatory with respect to the people and its organisations.  In this light, we would agree with Habermas’ ideal of a search for an “unconstrained, unifying, consensus-bridging force of argumentative speech”[29] which is at once a search for a form of morality that would be acceptable to everyone and to which everyone would be required to submit under the social contract.  Nevertheless, we must not forget Foucault’s warning about the inherent power relationships of authoritative institutions, and thus, seek to preserve the rights of civil society through the cultivation of an ‘attitude of modernity’.  Such an attitude would be enacted through a ‘critical ontology of ourselves,’ which would seek to express itself as a desire to publically challenge, “every abuse of power, whoever the author, whoever the victims”[30] and to be able to withhold consent regarding issues viewed as intolerable, without fear of persecution.  A further stipulation that we can ascertain from the debate between Habermas and Foucault is the necessity to subject the alleged universality of Western ideals of civil society to scrutiny so as to uncover the indigenous conditions for democracy in the contemporary Arab world.

It is for this reason that we must be able to engage with the Arab discourse on civil society in order to be able to explore the real conditions of possibilities which are likely to emerge indigenously from any particular contemporary Arab nation. Western scholarship[31] has rarely engaged with the active and vibrant Arab scholarship that exists and this lack of interaction has only proved detrimental to any real potential for progress. It is far more likely that the Arab discourse, which clearly has an advantage in understanding the situation on the ground, would be more closely in tune with the real desires and aspirations of the people in any given Arab nation.

Civil Society in Arab Discourse

The term ‘civil society’ has no direct translation in the Arabic language – this alone raises problems in attempting to transpose such Western notions into a foreign setting. This does not mean however that the stance of exceptionalism which holds the Arab world as incapable of political, social and cultural maturity is accurate. In fact, this could not be further from the position of this work, which instead is seeking to identify the historical presence of ‘civil society’ in the Arab world and explore new trends towards different forms of liberalisation – and, not exclusively economic liberalisation, which has dominated policies and which a great deal of research and discourse has to date taken as its primary focus.

Arab secularists have proposed the term al-mujtama’ al-madani (civil community) in an attempt to distance themselves from the term preferred by the Islamists al-mujtama’ al-ahli, which denotes a more indigenous civil and civic community and encompasses a larger sphere that is independent of the state, including such things as schools and charitable organisations. Kawtharani rejects al-mujtama’ al-madani stating it has both “definitional and conceptual problems”[32] and instead proposes akh (brother), ikhwan (brethren), akhawiyyah (brotherhood) or ahl (kin/partisan) which more accurately represents the Arab relationship with its Islamic history, culture, society and politics.[33] Although al-mujtama’ al-ahl is conceptually distinct from civil society according to Kawtharani, he along with other Islamic scholars, see a significant number of similarities that exist between the two notions. Ghannouchi on the other hand sees this debate over terminology as a distraction from the real issues at hand, namely the actual meaning of civil society, its presence in Arab history and its relation to the Eurocentric Western ideals. The Centre for Arab Unity Studies held a conference on civil society where a proposal was made for an all encompassing definition:

“Civil society as we understand it is the sum of political, economic, social, and cultural institutions that act each within its own field independently of the state to achieve a variety of purposes. These include political purposes such as participating in decision making at the national level, an example of which is the activity political parties engage in. They include vocational purposes such as those served by the trade unions to uplift the standard of professions and defend the interests of union members. They include cultural purposes such as those served by the unions of writers and cultural societies with the aim of spreading awareness in accordance with the inclinations and convictions of the members of each union or society. And they include social purposes the accomplishment of which contributes to the attainment of development.”[34]

This is a definition that Ghannouchi can work with, since it is not as restrictive as many other definitions proposed by Western thinkers, it also does not exclude religion and it implies that while civil society is independent of the state it maintains influence over the state in terms of both protecting and improving the interests of the people.

Ibn Rushd, one of the primary Muslim scholars to preserve the works of the Greek philosophers, saw reason as the highest of divine gifts available to human beings. However, he also recognised the importance of community, tradition and religion to human life, since we cannot live as isolated individuals. In this way, the two permanent poles of life were seen by Ibn Rushd to be reason and tradition, although the two do not always result in harmony. This does not mean however that either should be sacrificed, but that every individual must struggle in their attempt to think freely, and be a good citizen – it was in the “question of the relation between religion, tradition and community, on the one hand, and philosophy, science and free inquiry, on the other”[35] that Ibn Rushd dedicated a great deal of his work. At this point in history, it was the Arab and Islamic world that generated the great centres of civilisation where scholarship bloomed and prospered and where people from across the world travelled to cities including Baghdad, Damascus, Cordova and Seville in the pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment. Without the contributions of such centres of learning, Europe would today still be in total darkness.[36] It is in fact, the poverty of this type of free thinking and philosophy in the ‘modern’, contemporary Arab world that has had a devastating effect on the empowered civil societies of the past. “The poverty of philosophy in the Arab world today has its roots in the colonial and mandate periods during which the foreign powers thought philosophy was too much of a luxury for the natives or that philosophy opened their eyes to the fact that they were being enslaved, their riches exploited and their economic, social and cultural life subverted for the benefit of the neo-colonialist powers.”[37]

Constantine Zurayk, one of the Arab world’s and particularly Syria’s own contemporary thinkers, also stressed the importance of reason, specifically the need for the freedom of reason and autonomy in the pursuit of liberation, whether that is the liberation from and over nature, as with Hobbes and Locke, liberation from the tyranny of others, as with Foucault or liberation from the constraints of inner weakness and prejudice as with Nietzsche. For Zurayk this liberation is undertaken and realised through ‘effort’ and ‘will’ which he terms al-jihad al-akbar, the battle for one’s own rational self discipline, would involve the “quest for truth, critical thinking, disquietude (qalaq), the art of doubting, intellectual honestly, openness to exchange and dialogue, work, patience, perseverance and modesty.”[38] This idea, at least in part, relates to Hegel’s Bildung through his ‘system of needs’, Foucault’s ‘constant critique’, as well as Habermas’ ‘dialogue’, to name just a few. On the other hand, unlike many other Arab thinkers, Zurayk does not see there to be a tension between the principles of the Enlightenment and modernity and the preservation of Arab culture and identity. These principles, which he does not believe are Western in essence, are based in universal human reason and are essential for the movement towards progress, development and self-preservation. What Zurayk does see as a weakness of the enlightenment and modernity movements in the West is their neglect of spirituality which constitutes “the source of Europe’s cultural malaise, of its current inclination toward pessimism and disquietude.”[39] He does not however see this as a symptom of the problematic nature of the notions or ideals themselves, but instead with an oversight of or an incomplete understanding of enlightenment and modernity. In this way, both West and East are joined in their struggle in achieving the ideal, one of which lacks a relationship with the spiritual and one which lacks development in the areas of technology, science, socio-economy, politics, ethics and aesthetics.[40]

It is as a result of this disconnect of the spiritual, which has dominated the Western portrayal of modernity, that so many Arab thinkers have rejected the secular ideals of modernity. Although Ghannouchi understands the underlying reasons for the desire of separation of Church and State in the pursuit of European modernity, he views secularism as being the source of the ‘deterioration of humanity’, which while was intended to liberate the people from the oppressive church it went too far in its liberation of man from the values of altruism and humanity.[41] There are those, however, as with Sadek Al Azm, who believe secularism has been gravely misunderstood and instead of looking at is as a rejection of religion as such, it should be understood within the realm of a civil government, hukama madaniyya which would allow for pluralism and freedom of choice. For Al Azm in the absence of a “minimal level of secular civil society that transcends sectarian, denominational, regional or tribal affiliations”,[42] there can be no functioning democracy. This does not however imply that there is no room for the preservation of the sacred in an empowered civil society.

On reflection of just a small sample of Arab discourse, it is clear that there is a rejection of liberalisation from without and this is all the more apparent if we are to reflect on the recent concrete action on the ground that has been taking place around us. We can see that it is no longer possible, nor necessary – and certainly not desirable – for a foreign power to intervene in the Arab world’s process of liberation;[43] all the Arabs that have taken to the streets have shown that clearly. Those disenchanted Arab thinkers who “turned their gaze inwards to subject Arab culture to scathing critique blaming it for all ills that befall Arabs in this day and age”[44] have proved to have been gravely mistaken. In the same manner, discourse can no longer begin from the standpoint of an Arab world seen as politically apathetic with a ‘stagnant’ civil society, for it was not foreign intervention that shook these societies out of their slumber, [45]  but indigenous movements that were demanding the freedom and dignity that they had been denied for so long.

In this way, we must no longer distract ourselves with the all too familiar discourse of Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism or the so far unsuccessful backward looking analyses that cannot free themselves from a perspective of history that is bound to be anachronistic or in some way self serving, of which the ‘Orientalism’ discourse is the epitome. Instead it is vital that we turn our attention to exploring alternative possibilities, which are both contemporary and culturally specific and relevant to the current realities on the ground, which are increasingly proving to be intolerable. Accordingly, there is a need for a more robust discourse that explores the conditions of possibility for real concrete action in the Arab world, action towards real concrete ‘change’, ‘reform’, ‘progress’ and freedom in the Arab world.

Towards an Empowered Civil Society

It would appear, upon reflection of our concrete realities that the predominant practical conception of civil society and its empowerment still lies predominantly in the economic realm, as it did with Hegel.  According to Hinnebusch, the dominance of economics in civil society would result in the construction of “a business-centred civil society”[46] by a growing new bourgeoisie which would inevitably lead to demands for a greater rule of law and a limiting of state power. However, would a civil society led primarily by economic requirements and developments be able to meet the demands of a truly indigenous authentically democratic civil society that would have the ability to call for real social and political reform? What the events across the Arab world have made clear is that economic reforms alone, which tend to only benefit the minority, are certainly not enough for the majority of the people who continue to struggle to live a dignified life.

Instead, it is out of the necessity to begin with the concrete as opposed to the alleged ideal that we must turn to culture to explore its potential for creating the conditions of possibility[47] for the nurturing of a dynamic free civil society. It is essential, as Mahdi highlights, to be able to explore the “literary expression that [are] more popular and less elitist in content, sentiment and language”[48] in order to have a deeper understanding of social and political life in the Arab and Islamic world. As Zurayk suggests, culture is the key to understanding most contemporary issues, be they political, economic, or social[49] and it is from within the realm of culture that the conditions of possibility for creativity and freedom of thought are able to emerge.

In Assad’s interview he states that the last three decades have been dominated by a period of close-mindedness and extremism which has only lead to “less creativity, less development, and less openness.”[50] What is needed now is reform and Al Assad showed his accord with Zurayk on this point, with the following insight:  “You cannot reform your society or institution without opening your mind.”[51] According to Hegel, the mind is the State and from this perspective it is the role of the state to provide the means of opportunity for the opening up of the ‘mind of society’. In this way, this need for change and the opening up of the mind of society must also extend to the opening up of the state, since according to Assad “it is about doing something that is changing; to change the society, and we have to keep up with this change, as a state and as institutions. You have to upgrade yourself with the upgrading of the society.”[52]  At the same time, it is vital that this change be contextually based, as Antoon highlights, it is from within society’s collective memory of the struggle for freedom that music, poetry and the arts – acts of self-expression – are able give birth to the real indigenous agents of change. In the context of this focus upon concrete culture, it is in the streets that events occur and it is in the streets that our souls are nourished by the culture of our surroundings.  It is from within this culture of our surroundings that our ideas are born and from where we must search for the real source of an ‘opening up of the mind of society’ and an empowerment of civil society.

It is undeniable that the uprisings we have been experiencing across the Arab world will contribute to the collective memory that Antoon refers to, in the hope that these experiences will be able to aid and influence future struggles, for “the greatest moments in the struggle of single individuals make up a chain, in which a range of mountains of humanity are joined over thousands of years.”[53]  At the same time, we must be able to distinguish between a history that is carried as a burden, ib, and a history that can act as a source of motivation, hafiz.[54] In this way, we must, as Nietzsche would say, critically explore our own history in such a way that it serves life and shatters our immature, preconceived ideas about ourselves and possibilities.  It will be only in this way that we will be able to truly live in the present, unhistorically, in the creative moment that allows us to realise the possibilities of our own present and of our most beautiful privilege, about [our] power to cultivate in [ourselves] with complete conviction a great idea and to allow an even greater idea to grow forth out of it”[55].  It is precisely from within the unhistorical moment that the Arab uprisings[56] were born – “no artist would achieve his picture, no field marshal his victory, and no people its freedom, without previously having desired and striven for them in that sort of unhistorical condition.”[57]

At the same time, as Ghannouchi said of Tunisia, the same applies to the people of the entire Arab region involved in these uprisings, both current and to come; “The people must protect their revolution…. The blood of the martyrs is trusted in their hands, and not all their goals have been achieved. The street must remain mobilised, the genuine opposition and civil society institutions must coordinate to build a common vision, on which a national unity government will be formed to rebuild a political, democratic life in this [or any] country.”[58]

In light of this, what needs to occur before it is too late, and before events reach a point of no return, is for existing governments to lead the way, by providing the conditions of possibility for a critical engagement between government, oppositional parties and the people on the street in the search for a desirable, democratic, and viable alternative. This must be done, as Sadiki illustrates, through the development of moderate positions which are able and open enough to engage in real politics – to work with and within current powers to bring about a coalition of existing governments and oppositions, on paths of consensus and collusion rather than collision. Governments must take seriously the necessity to consult the plurality of civil society and oppositions, “who have not yet learned how to infiltrate governments and build strong political identities and power bases”[59] and who must also realise their obligation to develop coherent and practical strategies that will enable them to adequately and constructively participate in an Arab realpolitik.

In Syria in particular, where power structures have remained stagnant in the name of preventing foreign or outside involvement, there is no shortage of potential partners with which Assad could engage, many of which [dissidents, thinkers, artists, writers, poets, etc.] have chosen to stay in their beloved country even when it meant working with limited resources, tight restrictions and risks of arrest and imprisonment. The Damascus Spring of 2000, although suppressed, continued the struggle towards democratic learning, in an attempt at exploring the potentialities and particularities of democratic transition, in the hope that it would one day, provide the opportunity for the negotiation and establishment of a desirable social contract between the state and society.


[1] Houry, N. Quoted in Syria: A Kingdom of Silence. (9 February, 2011). Al Jazeera English Online.

[2] Star, S. (3 March 2010). Syrian Civil Society Empowerment 2010: New Directions for Syrian Society. Syria Forward Magazine, Issue 37.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Al Aous, Y. (March 2010). Development Challenges Demand a True Civil Society. Syria Today, Issue 59.

[5] Following the death of Hafez Al Assad in 2000, the Damascus Spring emerged, a period of intense political and social debate that took place within the muntadat, the salons or forums which were set up across Damascus in private homes, attended by many intellectuals, artists, and ‘like minded people’. The political demands of those involved in the Damascus Spring mobilised around the ‘Manifesto of the 99’ signed by prominent intellectuals, activists and artists who were calling for an end to the state of emergency, the release of political prisoners and the free return of those in exile, freedom of association and the freedom for the development and participation of political parties and civil organisations. Initially the government appeared to answer some of these demands, with the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the closure of the infamous Mezze underground prison. These glimmers of hope and change were quickly dispelled, however, when towards the end of 2001 the government suppressed a great deal of its activities and participants.

[6] Buck, J.J. (25 February, 2011). Asma Al Assad: A Rose in the Desert. Vogue Magazine, Online.

[7] Al Assad, B. Interview with Wall Street Journal. (31 January, 2011) Wall Street Journal, Online.

[8] Havel, V. (1993). Summer Meditations. Vintage Books, USA.

[9] Maier, C.S. ( 1987). In Search of Stability: Explorations in Historical Political Economy. Cambridge University Press, UK.

[10] Kaviraj, S. In Search of Civil Society in Kaviraj, S & Khilnani, S. (2001). Civil Society: History and Possibilities. Cambridge University Press, UK. p. 289.

[11] Locke, J. (1690). The Second Treatise of Civil Government.

[12] Including Ferguson and Kant.

[13] Jacobs, M. (1991). Living the Enlightenment: Freemasons and Politics in XVIII Century Europe. Oxford University Press, UK.

[14] Stillman, P. G. (1980). Hegel’s Civil Society. Polity, Vol. 12, No. 4, p.623.

[15] Rousseau, J.J. (1968). The Social Contract. Penguin, UK.

[16] Seligman, A. (1995). The Idea of Civil Society. Princeton University Press, USA.

[17] Kant, I. (1784). What is Enlightenment?

[18] Hegel quoted in Beiser, F. (2005). Hegel. Routledge, UK.

[19] Involves the creation of working human beings, constructing their own world in interaction with each other, to develop and satisfy their needs.

[20] Bildung is a nearly untranslatable word. It means education in the broadest sense, formation, acculturation, cultivation, formative development, and maturation to a cultured and liberal state of mind.

[21] Beiser, F. (2005). Hegel. Routledge, UK.  p. 249.

[22] Reidel, M. (1984). Between Tradition and Revolution: The Hegelian Transformation of Political Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, UK.

[23] Beiser, F. (2005). Hegel. Routledge, UK.  p. 243.

[24] Ibid, p. 244.

[25] Schmidt, J. (1998). Civility, Enlightenment, and Society: Conceptual Confusions and Kantian Remedies. American Political Science Review, Vol. 92, No. 2. p. 423.

[26] Carothers, T. (1999-2000, Winter). Civil Society. Foreign Policy, No. 117, p. 19.

[27] Foucault, M. Quoted in Flyvbjerg, B. (1998, Jun). Habermas and Foucault: Thinkers for Civil Society? The British journal of Sociology, Vol. 49, No.2, p.225.

[28] Luchte, J. (2011). Early Greek Thought: Before the Dawn. Continuum Press, UK.

[29] Habermas, J. (1983). Modernity: An Incomplete Project. In Foster, A. (2002). The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Bay Press, USA.  p. 316.

[30] Miller, J. (2000) The Passion of Michel Foucault. Harvard University Press, USA. p. 316

[31] Although there are notable exceptions, for example Dr. Larbi Sadiki.

[32] Sadiki, L. (2009). Rethinking Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy. Oxford University Press, UK. pg. 37.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ismaili, S. Quoted in Al-mujtama’ al-Madani Fil-Watan al-‘Arabi . (1992). Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-Arabiyah [Arab Unity Studies Centre]. Beirut.

[35] Mahdi, M. (1996). On Ibn Rushd, Philosophy and the Arab World (Interview). Journal of Comparative Poetics. No.16, Averroes and the Rational Legacy in the East and the West. pp.256.

[36] Tamimi, A. (18 October, 2006). Freedom and Falsehoods. The Guardian, Online.

[37] Mahdi, M. (1996). On Ibn Rushd, Philosophy and the Arab World (Interview). Journal of Comparative Poetics. No.16, Averroes and the Rational Legacy in the East and the West. p.257.

[38] Kassab, E.S. (October, 1999). An Arab Neo-Kantian Philosophy of Culture: Constantine Zurayk on Culture, Reason and Ethics. Philosophy East and West. Vol. 49, No. 4, pp.494-512.

[39] Zurayk, C. (April 1946). The Essence of Arab Civilization. Middle East Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2.

[40] Kassab, E.S. (October, 1999). An Arab Neo-Kantian Philosophy of Culture: Constantine Zurayk on Culture, Reason and Ethics. Philosophy East and West. Vol. 49, No. 4.

[41] Tamimi, A.S. (2001). Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islam. OUP, USA. p. 149.

[42] Al Azm, S.J. & Fakhr, A. (Winter, 1998). Trends in Arab Thought: An Interview with Sadek Jalal Al Azm. Journal of Palestine Studies. Vol. 27, No. 2. pp.68-80.

[43] Especially if we are to compare the ongoing mess of the Iraq war, in contrast to the peaceful and relatively low casualties of the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions.

[44] Bardawi, F. (18 February, 2011). Sunken Mythologies. Jadaliyya.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Hinnebusch, A. (1993) State and Civil Society in Syria. Middle East Journal, Vol 47, No. 2. Pp. 243-257.

[47] At least, ‘moments’ within an unlimited number of possibilities.

[48] Mahdi, M. (1996). On Ibn Rushd, Philosophy and the Arab World (Interview). Journal of Comparative Poetics. No.16, Averroes and the Rational Legacy in the East and the West.

[49] Kassab, E.S. (October, 1999). An Arab Neo-Kantian Philosophy of Culture: Constantine Zurayk on Culture, Reason and Ethics. Philosophy East and West. Vol. 49, No. 4.

[50] Al Assad, B. Interview with Wall Street Journal. (31 January, 2011) Wall Street Journal, Online.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Al Assad, B. Interview with Wall Street Journal. (31 January, 2011) Wall Street Journal, Online.

[53] Nietzsche, F. (1874).  On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life.

[54] Distinguished by Constantine Zurayk.

[55] Nietzsche, F. (1874).  On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life.

[56] This can also be extended to the uprisings in Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, etc.

[57] Nietzsche, F. (1874).  On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life.

[58] Ghannouchi, R. Interview with Al Jazeera. (3February, 2011). Al Jazeera English, Online.

[59] Sadiki, L. (2009). Rethinking Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy. Oxford University Press, UK.

2 Responses to “Empowering Syrian Civil Society”

  1. This is absolutely wonderful! Thankyou for putting this online!

  2. I was wondering if you ever considered changing the page layout of your site?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content
    so people could connect with it better. Youve got an
    awful lot of text for only having one or 2 images.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

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