How does any society build civil society?

Picture of Hamza Yusuf, a white man with a short, greying beard wearing a white shirt with a grey jacket over it and a red felt cap, with his right index finger raised. He is sitting on a beige sofa with cushions. Against the blue background is written "Samsun, Turkey".
Hamza Yusuf

In 2016 the American imam, Hamza Yusuf, gave a lecture in Turkey which was a commentary on certain hadith including the famous hadith of intention (that actions are judged according to intention) in which he made some scathing remarks about the Syrian uprising and claiming that Syrians were now fleeing across the ocean in boats, begging non-Muslims to let them into their countries. He quotes a hadith that says “whoever humiliates a sultan, Allah will humiliate them” and then claimed that some Iraqis had regretted the overthrow of Saddam Hussain and had come to appreciate the wisdom of their being in those positions:

Because we’re not ready. We don’t have civil society. We can’t even wait in line for buses. And this is not because Muslims are inferior to non-Muslims; it’s just circumstances. We’ve been moribund for a long time, we’ve lost a lot of wisdoms that we had; we have terrible treatment of our women, we don’t raise our children properly, we have horrible school systems, we have widespread corruption; these are all the realities of the Muslim world … So how do we change this situation? It’s all there (in the book of hadith he is teaching from), but no; this is just quietism, this is what the Sufis say, just worry about yourself, don’t worry about anybody else.

The whole lecture can be found on YouTube here; the three-minute clip this quote features in starts from about 49:25.

This passage echoes the talking points of people who have supported the repressive regimes of the Muslim world throughout recent history, but also people who have been sceptical about any number of peoples who have been occupied or oppressed over time to rule themselves and run things like farms, industries, the education system and so on. It was thought, for example, that Poles would be unable to run the industries of Silesia which had been largely controlled by Germans until the Second World War (Poland received part of the region after World War I, and the whole of it after WW2), but they proved capable. A number of years ago, an American Arab Republican running an outfit called the “Free Muslims” (which still exists) claimed that the Muslims could not be trusted with democracy because they would invariably vote for Islamists; former president Mubarak of Egypt was reported as claiming his country was not ready for a full democracy yet. Many countries have, in fact, made transitions from dictatorship to democracy, in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, some very successfully, some less so.

It’s true that many Muslim countries lack civil society (which refers to public engagement with politics and public issues in the form of an open media, trade unions, chambers of commerce, pressure groups and so on). The reason is that the governments do not allow it. You cannot build civil society in a police state which demands to control everything. You may have the appearance of democracy, a media which criticises minor decisions or which covers things going on in other countries in great detail, and trade unions but the media is censored and the unions are under party control; it is impossible to organise independently and anyone who tries to faces arbitrary imprisonment under ‘emergency’ laws which have been kept in place for decades. These things can only happen when there is freedom and where people do not fear the consequences of talking about things that affect everyone, where walls don’t have ears and there aren’t spies and party thugs everywhere. These things have happened in other countries after the fall of dictatorships and they can happen in Arab countries as well. There is nothing inevitable about any of this; Arabs are quite literate, and many educated ones have relatives living in the free world so they know how these things work.

Much the same can be said of the situation of women’s rights: it’s difficult to build a movement for women’s rights in a country where nobody has any rights and where you cannot speak freely without fear. In this he is also appealing to stereotypes, as the Arab world is not alone in being a place where women are being oppressed; the truth is that this is going on everywhere to one degree or another. In his own country, it is next to impossible to get justice following rape unless the attacker is someone who is stigmatised on racial or class grounds, or both; misogyny is displayed openly by men aspiring to high office, without it injuring their prospects, while male politicians influenced by male religious leaders interfere with pregnant women’s medical treatment and threaten laws that would criminalise them in the event of a miscarriage (these types of laws already exist in parts of Latin America, with the result that many innocent women have been imprisoned).

Likewise, the education system is a product of the dictatorships, and while it is not geared to producing independent minds and in some places is heavily militarised, it produces doctors, engineers and other skilled professionals who are in demand the world over. Education systems in western countries are often pretty bad, particularly if you are poor, from an ethnic minority, or both.

I’m not going to go into criticisms of his remarks about the Syrian uprising, or engage in speculation about why it has so far not succeeded, except to say that it is actually not over and the Assad regime still does not have control over the whole country. There are territories outside his control and the ‘tide’ can still be turned. But to say that a dictatorship should not be overthrown precisely because of societal ills which are largely a product of that dictatorship is not the soundest of reasonings. These things have been overcome before and there is no reason why, in most countries where there has been oppression over a long period, they cannot be again.

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