Saturday, February 26, 2011

Civil society in Arab societies

"The distinction between civil society associations as means and ends is an important one.  The institutions of free government are essential to a free society.  But political and economic freedoms are rights of individual persons, not of a society as a whole. Governments have centralizing and enlarging tendencies that can compromise individual freedoms – hence the role of civil society in mediating between individuals and government institutions. The absence of such spontaneous and individual-based free associations therefore becomes a major hindrance for countries emerging from authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. In effect, if not by conscious design, such associations demand and teach individual responsibility for the maintenance of a larger free society. 
"While it is natural for people searching for dignity, justice, and fairness to try to learn from the examples of other countries that overcame authoritarian rule, have we understood the right lessons from the post-communist transitions in Europe that might apply to Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world? Although the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had significant historical, political, social, and psychological differences with one another – with some emerging peacefully as new democracies and others suffering through bloody civil wars, as in the Balkans – they serve as good examples for identifying the necessary ingredients for successfully overcoming the legacy of totalitarianism."

In the "Civil Society in the Middle East Program," which I directed in the 1990s at New York University, we examined the quality of associational life in most Arab states, as well as in Turkey, Iran and Israel.  The program, funded by the Ford Foundation, was launched with a theme issue of the Middle East Journal, which has been widely cited.  A compact summary of the project, edited by program officer Jillian Schwedler (now a professor at Amherst), was published.   Toward Civil Society in the Middle East? includes a rewarding analytical essay by Schwedler.  In addition to the three volumes published in English, the project was also inspired several journal numbers of Iran Nameh in Persian focusing on Iran.  These were edited by program co-Director Professor Farhad Kazemi.  In addition, Professor Kazemi edited volumes in Persian.  The program also inspired debate and discussion in Arabic and Turkish fora.  The Civil Society Program also produced a documentary film, Quest for Change, which is distributed by Icarus Films and available from many university film libraries for rent.

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