The modern concept of civil society is centered on the idea of free joint action between individuals within private and official associations to achieve equitable societal settings and comfortable socioeconomic conditions. Typically, the causes and effects of social and civil movements are mainly of socioeconomic and sociopolitical nature.
On the socioeconomic front, efficient civil societies struggle to have proficient public administrations and good social services instead of depending solely on private organizations. The objective of social services is to provide individuals and the society with the necessary components of decent life so that to strengthen its civil fabric and elevate the sense of citizenship.
In many democratic countries, governments are involved in the planning, delivering and monitoring of social services, like health care, education and social security. Nevertheless, democratic governments usually incentivize and encourage private organizations and voluntary associations to render similar social services to its citizens.
On the sociopolitical front, active civil societies usually incorporate peaceful political and civil organizations that do not operate within the government system in order to express the interests, opinions, demands and rage of citizens against public policies.
In the developed world, justice and equality are now as much important as liberty and freedom were in the early stages. Highly developed civil societies tend to demand for the inviolable implementation of justice and equality in which all citizens, like senior citizens, women and children, for example, are transfigured into equal citizens. Actually, through purpose-built lobbying and keen social networking, civil and social movements have become one of the most effective vehicles of change.
After the World War II, major western players were soaked up in securing their broad political and economic interests, nationally and internationally, while their communities were much occupied with rebuilding their own civil societies. However, it was not before few decades when the west along with the international community started to take on more potent international stand in the push for civil-oriented societies. Obviously, standing firm for equality and justice for all have turned abusive racial discrimination, human trafficking and honor crimes, for instance, into irremissible statutory offense and elevated the call for equality for women to become a major international concern.
Given the civil settings of western societies and as the world has turned into a global village, it is significant to look at the developing world, where more than 85% of the world’s population lives, to perceive the civil picture of 6 billion people or so. In fact, the degree to which people and society can engage in political and civil activities varies between developing countries. For that, a look at the Arab civil societies, where their chronic problems do overlap with the world’s troubles, would illustrate in some way the civil case of many developing nations.
Unfortunately, in most developing countries and Arab countries, in particular, civil liberties are either sidelined or don’t really exist. Though most of those governments and rulers claim to be democratic, still they always drop several correlated fundamental freedoms and civil liberties usually associated with democracy. Knowingly than not, Arab governments either pretermit the full implementation of essential features of real democratic society, like justice and equality, civil liberties, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and participation in political activities, and freedom from arbitrary arrest, or they just prohibit all civil and social movements in the name of national security considerations.
In this developing region, people are manipulated so that not to exercise their civil rights, mainly those of political and social nature. Actually, the concurrent slogan of all Arab Spring uprisings “the people want to down the regime” comprises several intertwined must-haves: the demand of citizens to get rid of despotism, corruption and underdevelopment, and to govern themselves democratically through their freely elected representatives and political parties, and that the state should not interfere in their social life. Unfortunately, none of these demands seems to come about soon without further political and civil strife.
Before and after the Arab Spring, Arab civil societies are not politically organized nor societally configured, they do not have effective civil and social organizations to defend the rights and interests of citizens, improve social services and peacefully call for the amendment of laws and constitutions.
In most of the Arab world, women rights are totally dismissed or marginalized at best by the excuse of its incompatibility with some religious laws and archaic traditions. Despite that women are about half of Arab populations, Arab women are rarely elected to parliaments—when and where they are legally permitted to register their candidacy—and minimally represented in government cabinets. Unjustly, Arab women are denied by law the right to grant their nationalities to their children and spouses. Over and above that we still see the so-called honor crime incorporated in the penal laws of Arab states and somewhat lionized in social traditions, not to speak of marriage of minors, domestic violence, sex abuse and sexual harassment.
Voluntary civil marriage is still illegal in most parts of the Arab world, though some countries, like Lebanon, recognize similar offshore marriage contracts. Civil marriage is a taboo to Islamic religious authorities, since Muslim muftis and other Islamic heads harshly denounce and judge such marriages as an unlawful act of infidels that should be severely punished. Unlike the uncompromising Muslim muftis, some Arab Christian patriarchs and bishops adopt more moderate stance to approach this issue. Nonetheless, when it comes to mixed marriages, these same religious authorities, Islamic and Christian authorities alike, compel one of the couples to convert to the other sect—mostly, to her partner’s sect.
Likewise, children rights are widely infringed to which child labor is accepted as a norm to add manual skills to poor and uneducated kids, let alone the fact that many Arab cities are filled with young street beggars and flower kids, and the foreseen abuses therefrom. The majority of Arab children and adolescents don’t have public medical care insurance unless their parents are employed and registered in the state’s Social Security departments, not to speak of the inhumane case of orphans and illegitimate youngsters.
In more than two-thirds of Arab countries, the elderly and senior citizens, who are over 64 years old, are abandoned to their fate without retirement pension, medical and hospitalization insurance or any other social benefit for them or their families.
Obviously, the current severe conditions of Arab civil societies are taking place out of context of Islamic and Christian culture and in breach of international civil rights. Despite that there are vigorous national attempts and modest international efforts to revitalize feeble civil societies and promote the adoption of human and civil rights in this region, the fact remains that Arab people still have a long lone journey to establish a rock-steady civil life.
Though there is little room to the belief that most of the current governing elites and their dogmatists could bring on real change, the prevalent notion is that reform will be set about only when the people and their representatives open their minds and hearts to the fact that there are other people in this world. And that Arabs and non-Arabs alike, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, have no choice but to interact with each others, moderate their views and convictions, tolerate other people’s ideas, practices and beliefs, and above all, to live and pursue their goals peacefully. It starts here and never ends.
Meanwhile, Arab rulers and politicians should take notice that the real outcry in the Arab minds is about democratization and modernization—if not secularization, and that they must respond accordingly before Arab societies fall apart and reach a point of no return.
Author’s Note: This article is also published at Arabian Gazette