By MARY-JANE DEEB
On Nov. 14 the Library's African and Middle Eastern Division and the Office of Scholarly Programs co-sponsored a symposium on "Globalization and Civil Society in the Muslim World." This was the seventh in a series of symposia on "Globalization and Muslim Societies" made possible in part by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Carolyn Brown, assistant librarian for Library Services and acting director of Area Studies, welcomed the attendees gathered in the Whittall Pavilion surrounded by the magnificent collection of Stradivarius violins. She thanked the organizers of the conference and reminded the audience that the purpose of the series of symposia was to expand people's knowledge and understanding of Islam and Muslim societies. She noted that some of the symposia, videotaped by Information Technology Services, are available on Library's Web site at www.loc.gov/locvideo/mslm/globalmuslim.html.
The first panel, chaired by this writer, focused on "Civil Society in Historical Perspective." Richard Khuri, scholar at the Council for Research and Values at Catholic University in Washington, presented a paper on "The Origin of Civil Society in Islam." He noted that the principle of civil society was enshrined in Muslim legal texts. Small communities, traditionally the basis of civil society in the Muslim world, included those gathered around Sufi shrines, merchants in commercial centers (the bazaar), craftsmen within their guilds, as well as Islamic scholars who played an important role interpreting Koranic text and acting as reference sources for local communities on religious matters. In modern times, the Muslim state has taken over religious institutions and is treating society, according to Mr. Khuri, as "a machine." By maximizing the material aspects of culture, he said, the state has eroded the complex system of interpersonal relations that was the very foundation of traditional Muslim civil society.
Amira El-Azhary Sonbol, associate professor of Islamic history, law and society in the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, addressed the issue of civil society through court records in Egypt at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. Her research into those records revealed a very complex and rich system of law based not only on shari'a, or Islamic law, but also on tradition, or applied law.
Ms. Sonbol argued that people rather than abstract principles determined the laws that regulated society. For instance, although a strict adherence to shari'a in a Muslim court of law would make the testimony of one man worth that of two women, those court records revealed that judges in the courts used testimony based on evidence irrespective of the gender of the person testifying. Similarly, in marriage contracts, Ms. Sonbol maintained, women had the power to decide the kind of marriage and divorce settlements they wanted. Slaves could sue their masters if they were mistreated, and Christian and Jews often resorted to Muslim courts when they could not get satisfaction in their own separate courts. Today the state has created uniform codes and modernized and centralized the legal system. This has alienated people and undermined the rules that used to govern the relations among members of a civil society, she said.
Madeline C. Zilfi, professor and associate chair of the Department of History at the University of Maryland, examined state-society relations in Ottoman Turkey in the 1820s and 1830s. She argued that there were two sets of laws in Ottoman society: one for ordinary subjects and another for civil servants. The latter were at the mercy of the state, which could confiscate their property whenever it chose to. Under the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II and his successor, a series of reforms were introduced, in the first part of the 19th century. These reforms, known as the Gulhane Rescript, were in response to the criticisms of that dual policy by religious scholars and members of Sufi orders such as the Nakshabandis. The Rescript, which curtailed state powers, enabled the modernization of both society and the military in Turkey and in other parts of the Ottoman empire.
The second panel focused on contemporary case studies. Michael Hudson, the Seif Ghobash Professor of Arab Studies and professor of international relations at Georgetown University, gave a broad overview of the state of civil society in the Arab world. He discussed six trends that are affecting civil society: a "state in crisis," a religious resurgence of militant Islamic groups, a greater ethnic and sectarian awareness, "demography colliding with economic sluggishness," globalization and the rapid expansion of civil society throughout the modern world. The impact on the region has been an increase in formal associations such as political parties, professional associations, chambers of commerce, think tanks, trade unions and the like, as well as more informal groups such as patron-client relations, religious zawiyas and occupational networks.
Muriel Atkin, professor of history at George Washington University, addressed the issue of civil society in Tajikistan, where she has done a lot of her research. She argued that the "modern state has been extraordinarily intrusive in the lives of its citizens," sometimes benevolently but at other times with disastrous consequences. The Soviet state erased the "historical base of civil society" by cracking down on all aspects of religion and especially on Islam. Today, despite the collapse of communism, the nomenclature has changed but the mentality of the old ruling elite has remained. Because of the impact of globalization among other forces, there emerged briefly, in the early 1990s, some cultural heritage clubs, tribal and ethnic structures, environmental groups, small political parties, the nucleus of an Islamic movement and women and business associations. However, the government quickly stifled or co-opted them, she noted.
The last panelist was Ramin Jahanbegloo, a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, whose talk focused on the role of intellectuals in Iran's civil society. He maintained that "civil society in the sense of an autonomous sphere of associations whose growth is facilitated by the legal system, does not exist in Iran." On the other hand, there has been a proliferation of newspapers and magazines that, in the absence of political parties, have played an important "role in educating and informing the population … sometimes determining the day's political agenda." There has also emerged a group of young intellectuals who are more aware of the impact of globalization and who "can influence the Iranian political class by helping it to understand how the world is changing."
Ms. Deeb is the Arab world area specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.