What is civil society? This phrase was uncommon in Western discourse before the 1980s, and so it may still be unfamiliar to many people. In simple terms, civil society refers to “additional efforts,” distinct from those made by the government and business sectors. As such, civil society refers to the collective voluntary actions around shared interests, purposes, and values. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors, and institutional forms, such as: registered charities, NGOs or non-governmental organizations, professional associations, community groups, foundations, charitable trusts, faith-based organizations, and self-help groups, all of which work for the betterment of the people and societies in which they live.
Civil Society primarily constitutes actions formalized by people for the benefit of people. Often governments are fragile by themselves, and people take matters into their own hands to benefit their underprivileged population. Decisions made by governments are often driven by politicians and do not necessarily benefit people.
Aga Khan lV (49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslim community), in a speech given at the Royal Society, London on 2nd February 1992 said: “… civil society is more than the unitary state. Rather, civil society is properly recognized to be a pluralist collection of the groups, associations, and localities in which we actually spend our lives… Development is ultimately about people, about enabling them to participate fully in the process and to make informed choices and decisions on their futures. I believe this requires a creative and supportive partnership between government, private enterprise, and the voluntary sector; …. And the voluntary sector can serve to bring people together to meet an enormous range of social needs.“
In the same speech he continued: “To create a pluralistic civil society, private institutions must be established that meet the needs of their constituent groups. The state cannot do it all. To be successful, these private institutions must meet two conditions: their members must have a sense of common purpose; and those members must be organized so as to achieve that purpose.“
In previous articles I have pointed to the Imam’s vision on pluralism, which encourages diverse people with creative ideas to achieve common goals; and his vision on the Islamic understanding of knowledge, which he promotes through initiatives such as the establishment of universities and centers of excellence, to transform, develop and enrich societies. These and other efforts of Imamat institutions and similar efforts by other institutions, professionals, volunteers, and communities are efforts that are non-governmental and non-business orientated. For this reason, they are generally termed non-profit organizations or not-for-profit organizations. These additional efforts in any society make it a civil society.
In his keynote address at the Canadian Leadership Conference, Quebec, Canada, on 19th May 2004, referring to a UN report, Mawlana Hazar Imam said that “Our long presence on the ground gives us an insight that confirms the UN’s assessment – that a democracy cannot function reasonably without civil-society institutions and respect for pluralism.“
The expression, “civil society,” refers to additional private initiatives and efforts, such as Imamat institutions (akdn.org) and other humanitarian welfare organizations, over and above governmental and business community’s efforts, to strengthen society and support welfare of its people.
Islam is a universal religion, with humanistic values, and ethical principles, such as: communal solidarity; charity; generosity and volunteerism; personal and institutional ethical behavior; accountability and integrity; and respect and tolerance. These and such values and principles contribute to the building and enrichment of any society. All Imamat initiatives manifested in the form of various apex institutions such as AKF, AKFED, AKU and AKTC may be viewed as an effort to create strong civil societies around the world. In his keynote address at the Canadian Leadership Conference, Quebec, Canada, on 19th May 2004, Mawlana Hazar Imam said:
“The engagement of the Imamat in development is guided by Islamic ethics, which bridge faith and society. It is on this premise that I established the Aga Khan Development Network. This network of agencies has been active in many areas of Asia and Africa to improve the quality of life of some of the poorest and most diverse populations in the world.“
Highlighting Canada as a prime example of a strong civil society, Mawlana Hazar Imam said: “Canada has successfully constructed a public sphere predicated on the ethic of respect for human dignity. It recognizes and builds on difference, enables a spirit of compromise and consensus in public and legislative policies, and marks out a healthy space for the role of civil society as a sound – indeed, essential – bulwark for democratic processes.“
Aga Khan’s vision of architecture and pluralism actualized the idea of civil society, which serves to strengthen and enrich society and its people. In his concluding remarks at the Winners’ Seminar of The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Aleppo, Syria, 7th November 2001, he said: “The essence of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is to examine, analyze, understand, and try to influence the dynamic of physical change in Islamic societies. The dynamic is not limited to cities, and it is not limited to professions. Its focus is the totality of civil society, as we know it.”
An excellent example of what civil society can do is reflected in the selection of the Gando Village primary school in Burkina Faso, which was constructed at a cost of less than U.S. $30,000. It was one of the seven recipients of the 2004 Aga Khan Award for Architecture; the Master Jury selected this project for “its elegant architectonic clarity, achieved with the humblest of means and materials and for its transformative value”. It also remarked that, “the result is a structure of grace, warmth and sophistication, in sympathy with the local climate and culture”.
Not only did the architect design the school and raise funds locally to build it, but he also secured government support to train local people in building techniques that used local materials. He drew on the strong tradition of community solidarity to engage all villagers in the construction. The way the community organized itself set an example for two neighboring villages, which subsequently built their own schools as a cooperative effort. What a wonderful example of private initiatives, which involved diverse groups of people to improve their own lives and the lives of future generations.
We hope that this vision of Mawlana Hazar Imam about civil society, which is premised on the ethical values of Islam, will encourage, and motivate all of us to offer our voluntary services, by participating with the diverse groups and people of our society, to strengthen our communities and nations in which we are living. Would this not be an admirable way to actually participate in the vision of our Imam in practice?