Friday, August 3, 2007

Reply to "Professor Lo with an Imam (part 3)" (by Professor Lo)


You are right about your assumptions and inquiries regarding the masjid’s role in civil society. You are also right about your observation of the state’s systematic incursion into the last sanctuary of free speech and liberty in the Arab world—the masjid. You are also right about the fact that the “appointed” imam’s Kutba at the Tahrir Squire was un-intending to communal issues, thus triggering your legitimate labeling of the state’s behavior as undermining the ‘civic’ nature of these communities.

In the midst of these upright assumptions, we should address your two main points of inquiry: the place of the masjid in civil society, and the repercussions of removing the traditional role of imams in these societies.

Regarding the first point, we have to acknowledge the current Western liberal interests in making civil society the paradigmatic way of thinking about democracy and good governance. At the same time, we have to address a theoretical issue created by this sudden interest in implementing the notion of civil society into the social fabric of developing countries. The issue is that if the concept of civil society is to be successful in the Arab and Muslim world, it has to include fully most dynamic associational life without leaving out major socio-religious institutions. Only then, can the concept of civil society be a legitimate tool for recognizing groups and associations and addressing their issues and interests in the context of a sustainable democracy.

The implication of this theoretical point is that although civil society, by all Western liberal accounts, means the realm of voluntary, independent and autonomous associations in the public sphere between the family and the state, the current working conception/ definition of the term , in which the world’s assistance policy is based, does not include religious institutions, or what is generally termed as “ascriptive associations”. This means in the context of the Muslim world, masjids, which are the core of associational life are outside the periphery of civil society.


I think this raises the question of the legitimacy of the term civil society in Muslim societies, because the main socio-religious institution—the masjid that represents most of associational life, is excluded from the constituency and membership due to the narrowing of the scope of civil society. I should say that this narrowing of the definition of civil society has no base in the Western experience of civil society. It is rather the product of the neo-Tocquevillianism, especially, Robert Putnam’s book on Italy, Making Democracy Work. In this book, he argues that primary grouping, i.e., bloodlines and religious groups, are weak ties in sustaining community cohesion and collective action. Likewise, religious institutions have hindering factors on the existence of civil society. American social scientists of the Clinton years picked up his argument and used it as the blue print for international institutions and multilateral donors. However, if one travels across the Middle East, she will clearly see that Putnam’s assertion has no frame of reference in these regions. As you have seen in Yemen when we traveled to Hadhramout, Manakha, and Kawkeban that the state has a limited presence outside Sana’a. The only sign of social cohesion and communal life is the tribe and the masjid.

In reality, Alexis De Tocqueville, father of the modern conception of civil society, has argued well in his book, Democracy in America, that religious institutions, especially the church, were at the center of good governance and the making of American democracy. If religious institutions were good for America in the 18th century, we should assume they have the same task for the 21 century. De Tocqueville supported his assertion by discussing the major tasks of these religious: they pursuit communal interests, serve equalitarian ideas and represent an alternative form of governance. Aren’t these the same tasks of masjid in Yemen, and throughout the region?

In addition to these noble tasks of the mosque, Yemeni mosques serve as a buffer-zone between individuals of small tribe affiliation or minorities group and the state bureaucracy. In Yemen, if a citizen has a problem with the state bureaucracy, he has to use the tribal affiliation to bargain with the state. If he is from a small tribe or a minority group, such as the Akhdam community, his only hope is the masjid. When I was working with Ella on profiling Yahya Sharafi (Ella’s article is on the blog), we found that the Ministry of Petroleum put him in a precautionary prison because he often goes from masjid to another talking to imams and congregations about his grievances against the Ministry.

I hope this brief survey clarifies my support for the institution of mosque, in this regard all religious institutions, to be admitted into the constituency of civil society. The fascination of IMF, USAID and NDI with NGOs as the sole legitimate representation of civil society does not help consolidate communal values, social participation and individual responsibility, which are at the center of the masjid’s functions.

As I saw in Egypt, Morocco and, to some extent, the Sudan, most NGOs display little interest in promoting these social values. They are replacing communal participation with advocacy politics. In a different sense, they are eradicating traditional values of solidarity and individual responsibility through their exclusive focus on procedural democracy. The mosque’s role centers on social connectedness and communal solidarity that prioritize group interest over individual ones. In the masjd’s community, individuals act out of moral pressure and social responsibility to support the welfare of the community or to oppose the tyranny of the state bureaucracy. If we are to look for the greater good for a sustainable democracy, NGOs should not be supported at the expense of the masjid.

For you second point, it is a sad story. The concept of “civil” in the Arab and Muslim history has a long connotation with the institution of the masjid and its imam. Al-jahiz, has used the masjid in his Bayan wa-t-tabyin as a symbol of change and progress, where both imams and individuals express new ideas, and protest against the old ones. Ibn Khaldun, in the Muqadima, expresses the dialectical relationship between the two live styles of haDar ‘civil’ and badwu ‘Bedouin’. The former he argues is the source of progress and stability, while the latter is the source of backward thinking and destabilization. Ibn Khaldoun’s views go back to the earlier writers such as As-shahrastani in his Milal wa-n-nihal, and Al-jahiz in his many works. They both considered the difference between the two life styles embodied in the fact that that one evolves from a mosque community, while the other is unable to set its sphere due to the absence of a mosque community. The common point in these classic works is that communities developed around mosques, where high cultures and civility are protected. Forces outside the mosque, whether from the ‘palaces’ or the ‘Sahara’, have often been a symbol of destruction and fitna.

What has been happening with the ‘appointed’ imams is the destruction of the community that evolves around the institutions of the mosque. As you have described it well, the ‘appointed imam acts like a bureaucrat,’ who is paid to do his job with little or no interest to ‘indigenous, community’s needs. If you noticed at the Friday prayer at the Tahrir mosque, only a couple of people came to congratulate the imam after the prayer, and the mosque was empty within five minutes following the service. Unlike the other mosques, where we had to wait in line to get into the imam, where a sense of community bosomed after the service as people congratulated one another, exchanged wishes and inviting others to mid-day meals. The imam symbolizes this belonging to the community, he is at the center of communal affairs.

When I was an undergrad. I took a course in Islamic Jurisprudence and Popular Culture. The professor was a Sudanese of Darfurian background. A tall gentlemen with an eternal smile on his face. A mastermind of classical Arabic, with a golden rule in his lectures “if you cannot speak the language correctly, you should not bother to speak in my class.” The argument of the class was that ordinary Muslims do not take their religious views from the five main schools of Islamic jurisprudence/ figh. They rather deal with the imam, who often uses common sense to offer edicts rather than discriminating for a particular school of thought. Since I was one of the ardent critiques of his argument, he encouraged me to travel across communities and find out. That summer I traveled from Port Sudan, that is East of Sudan, to Uswan, Southern Egypt. I visited 38 or 39 mosques, I don’t recall the exact number. What I learned was that my Professor was right, as I talked to individuals and imams, I found out that the latter is the protector of ‘the religion and community,’ the community act rationally by depending wholly on the imam’s judgment.

The relevance of this story is that, ‘appointed’ imams destroy the cohesiveness of a community by alienating themselves from the congregation and the local community. Thus creating a d├ęcalage in worshipers’ lives. As a result, many community members, especially, the youth look for ‘cyber imams’ and ‘online communities’ in faraway places. The danger here is that these faraway imams and communities do not address local issues or communal interests. They often espouse global agenda and regional tasks, which often put them at the quagmire of regional politics.

Herein lies the demise of the ‘civic’ mission of the masjid. The masjid becomes another bureaucratic institution, where the ‘appointed’ imam comes and goes, repeating his ‘stamped’ khutba, and where community members feel violated by the ever escalating state bureacracy.