Video: What future for Islamist and secular civil society and global philanthropy in the Middle East?

  • Steven Lawry
  • Elisa Peter
| Feb. 23, 2012

Originally posted here on 27 February 2012

The trial of 43 people including 16 Americans on criminal charges of working in nonregistered nonprofit organizations and receiving foreign funding began on February 26 in Cairo. The charges against the NGO workers, including 16 Americans, has ignited a deep crisis in US-Egyptian relations, including threats from members of Congress to end the US’s $1.5 billion annual aid program to Egypt.

Arguably, the crisis more fundamentally speaks to the future of Egyptian civil society. The NGO workers are being tried under a Mubarak-era law that severely limits the right of Egyptians to form civic associations without prior government approval. The activities of legally registered organizations are subject to strict government oversight and funding, especially from foreign donors, is closely scrutinized and regulated.

This leads to a number of questions about the future of civil society in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. Will citizens of Arab countries, in the aftermath of the Arab awakening, be free to form civil society organizations without the overbearing supervision of state authorities, and thereby contribute openly and vigorously to the resolution of the problems facing their countries? Some number of Western, secular institutions, including foundations, will be exploring what the newfound freedom and social and political prominence of Islamist governments, parties and civic organizations means for their own relationships with the Arab world. For philanthropies, what are the opportunities for finding common ground with Islamist organizations in addressing fundamental social and civic problems?

Two Harvard Kennedy School programs, The Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations and The Middle East Initiative, hosted a panel discussion entitled “The Search for Common Ground” on February 16, 2012, that explored these and related questions. The panelists were Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Charles Howard Chandler Professor of Law at Emory Law School; Malika Zeghal, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life at Harvard University; and Christopher Stone, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of the Practice of Criminal Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School. Steven Lawry, Hauser Center senior research fellow and former Ford Foundation representative for the Middle East and North Africa served as moderator.

Here is a video of the entire event. Some highlights of the panelists’ observations and arguments are summarized below.

A Search for Common Ground from Hauser Center at Harvard on Vimeo.

Video Credit: Cory Maxwell-Coghlan, Hauser Center

Steven Lawry, in his introductory remarks, observed that a lively and diverse civil society exists in the Arab world, despite the efforts of most states to put severe legal constraints on the ability of citizens to freely form organizations, through oppressive regulation, limits on funding, and other forms of interference.

Global secular philanthropy has had a limited but sometimes important role in the region, and typically directs its funding to what we might call secular civil society—organizations committed to nonsectarian civic agendas around education, human rights, poverty reduction, and reproductive rights.

A much larger community of organized civic action, which we might characterize as Islamist civil society, is an important aspect of public life in the Arab world. Large in scope, often organized or encouraged by local imams, working close to the poor, closely connected with Islamist political parties and reform movements, Islamist civil society delivers a great array of charitable services, related for instance to education, health care, to relief of the poor. It helps the disempowered to negotiate the requirements of daunting state bureaucracies. Islamist civil society, some would argue, is far more relevant to the daily lives of the poor in countries like Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia than state institutions, and has achieved a kind of social and political credibility much greater than the state or secular civil society.

Professor An-Na’im described the ancient tradition of Islamic charitable giving. Al-waqf (religiously sanctioned endowments) and zakat (private charitable donations typically channeled through local mosques) are an integral part of Muslim civic life. Islamic charity is based on the principle of anonymous giving, with anonymity serving in part to protect the honor of the receiver of charity; “anonymity takes humiliation out of the donor-recipient relationship” (Steven Lawry’ blog of February 20, 2011, describes Al-waqf and zakat in detail.) The relationships of Western philanthropic organizations with their grantees, including those in the Arab world, are very different: foundations, with a few exceptions, expect their support to be publically acknowledged. By virtue of their funding role alone, some foundations will claim a greater share of credit for the work done by grantees than is fair or appropriate. Organizations that become reliant on donors from outside the communities they serve become less accountable to local constituencies, contributing to a crisis of accountability and legitimacy.

Professor Zeghal argued that secular and Islamist civil society share many more common principles and values than is generally recognized. Using the example of Tunisia, Professor Zeghal showed how secular and Islamist groups collaborated closely in advocating for civic and political rights under the autocratic regime of President Ben Ali. The question that Western philanthropic organizations should ask themselves is not what type of partner organization to choose (secular or Islamist) but instead the shared principles that would form the basis for productive relationships dedicated to establishing more democratic societies.

Professor Stone argued that international foundations and NGOs needed to become better at deferring to accountability structures rooted in local communities. He spelled out a number of ways this could be done, for instance through smaller grants shaped collaboratively by donors, grantees and beneficiary communities, and fostering local-level decision making regarding grant decisions. But beyond this technical approach, global funders may also have to change the way they see Islamist organizations and develop a more sophisticated understanding of the charitable roles played by Islamist organizations. Because of the centrality of Islam in public life in the Muslim world, global funders can no longer ignore Islamist organizations.

A Postscript

The Egyptian parliament last week withdrew a controversial draft bill on civil society organizations put forward by the Mubarak government in early 2011. The bill, consistent with existing law, provided for registration of civil society organizations at the discretion of the Ministry of Social Affairs, and continued existing penalties for receiving foreign funds without the prior approval of the government. In withdrawing the draft bill, Mohamed Esmat al-Sadat, chairman of the Egyptian Parliament’s Human Rights Committee acknowledged that any new NGO law “should protect freedom of association, respect state sovereignty, regulate NGO funding and allow the formation of NGOs by mere notification, without the need for government approval”. (“Govt withdrew NGO draft law, says MP,” Egyptian Independent, February 13, 2012.)

Steven Lawry is a senior research fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. Elisa Peter is a mid-career fellow at the Hauser Center.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Lawry, Steven and Elisa Peter. “Video: What future for Islamist and secular civil society and global philanthropy in the Middle East?.” News, , February 23, 2012.

The Authors