Democracy is Result of Society, Not Need of Society: Al-Wahishi

How can Israel be called a democratic State when it is indulging in terrorism? Palestinian civil society has been destroyed as Israel launched a war against the civil society and not its military. Then US President George W. Bush launched a war in Iraq and killed innocent people to ‘create’ democracy. Democracy needs to stand…

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SAAD BIN ZIA

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How can Israel be called a democratic State when it is indulging in terrorism? Palestinian civil society has been destroyed as Israel launched a war against the civil society and not its military. Then US President George W. Bush launched a war in Iraq and killed innocent people to ‘create’ democracy. Democracy needs to stand on justice which is absent from this planet earth. These views were expressed by Dr. Ahmed Salem Al-Wahishi, Chief Representative of Arab League in India. He was addressing the inaugural session of the two-day (January 21-22) national seminar on Civil Society, Democracy and State in West Asia organised by the Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), New Delhi.

Dr. Al-Wahishi emphasised, “Democracy is a result of society and not the need of the society.” He further added, “A democratic system may differ in form and shape from one country to another due to cultural and historical variations; yet the essence of democracy remains the same.”

On the role of civil society in promoting democracy, Dr. Al-Wahishi noted, “In a democracy, civil society groups have respect for human rights of individuals and for the rights of other groups to express their interests and opinions. One of the essential components of democracy is the opportunity for the civil society to play its role in the political process. Civil society groups as non-state actors can work with state actors to promote democracy. Civil society is not always in conflict with the state. That civil society is independent of the state does not mean that it must always criticise and oppose some state policies. Civil society is a check, a monitor, but also a vital partner in the quest for this kind of positive relationship between democratic state and its citizens.”

Delivering the inaugural lecture, JMI Vice Chancellor Prof. Mushirul Hasan remarked, “What has happened recently will make an impact. In the context of West Asia a key question is the absence of democracy. What constitute civil society in West Asia is still not clear and that’s why it calls for serious attention. The classical textbook definition of state is not valid in the present Arab world. The choice of democracy lies with the people of the region.”

In his keynote address, former Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Prof. M.S. Agwani observed, “There is no country in the world that has a perfect functioning democracy. In the context of West Asia situation varies from country to country; therefore, the level and degree of democratisation varies. All of the West Asian nations have shared legacy of a ‘traditional political model i.e. Islam’. This legacy is based on three pillars namely the Ummah, the Caliphate and Shariah.

“In the present scenario the concept of Ummah has been reduced to a notion only. The Caliphate has been replaced with popular sovereignty and not even a single country in the entire region of West Asia and North follows Shariah in the proper sense of the word. In my view politics in West Asia and North Africa must be based on the principles of accountability of the rulers and participation by the public.”

In his presidential comments Ambassador Ishrat Azeez mentioned, “Yes, I do agree that there are imperfections and lacunae in the practice of democracy. Nonetheless I still see it as an ideal. I cannot think of a better system of governance than democracy. We should always distinguish between democracy as a concept and as it is being practised.”

Dr. Sujata Ashwarya Cheema, Assistant Professor, Centre for West Asian Studies, JMI contended, “The existence of civil society is considered to be a pre-requisite of democracy and democratic life of the society and its relation with the state. Civil society is constituted of a mélange of interest groups, social clubs, and political parties that occupy space between the individual and the state. The individual forms core of the notion of civil society, as do individual rights. Since the 1990s, with the wave of political liberalisation sweeping throughout the region, the debate on democratisation in West Asia has been associated with the study of three crucial issues – Whether civil society exists in the region? What are its strength and weaknesses? And what the future holds for its existence?”

Prof. A.K. Pasha of the Centre for West Asian and African Studies, JNU, in his presentation titled ‘Aspects of Democracy in GCC States: Challenges and Implementation’ pointed out, “Democratisation, if successful and sustained can produce accountable, transparent, participatory and inclusive governance, instead of exclusive and repressive rule. Democratisation usually takes a top-down approach. What the GCC rulers have opted for is not the immediate establishment of full-fledged liberal democracy, but a gradual process toward participation in the political and economic life. Since 1991, two significant changes of far reaching consequences to the area have taken place: the collapse of Arab unity; and the other is the ‘explosion of questioning process’ that has spurred the incipient process of democratisation and test the legitimacy of Arab regimes in the Gulf areas.”

Dr. Javed Ahmad Khan, Reader, CWAS, JMI presented a paper on Role of Civil Society in the Current Economic Integration of the Arab Gulf States. He drew our attention to “the emerging civil society’s role in the market sector or economic affairs where the significance of Arab world is gaining new momentum in recent years, not only due to their massive oil reserves, but also for diversification in a new liberalised investment climate where the global players are entering for the various developmental activities in the region.”

The main argument of his paper was, “Civil society organisations are becoming a new effective tool in promoting such business climate especially through their professional associations with other markets and commercial agents to grow this across the boundaries. Civil society organisations in the Gulf countries may provide checks on government power because it will help in better governance by enhancing accountability and transparency.”

Dr. Shahid Jamal Ansari, Reader, CWAS, JMI spoke on ‘Civil Society in the Gulf States’. According to him, “Active political organisations, especially political parties are banned in the GCC countries. As a consequence of the sustained war on terrorism and the international efforts to freeze terrorist assets, a number of ministerial decisions were issued in GCC states to regulate the activities of CSOs particularly those operating in the field of charitable and humanitarian assistance, both domestically and internationally. Nonetheless civil society in the GCC states has shown a good measure of development in some states, particularly Bahrain and Kuwait. In other GCC states some welcome changes are noticeable. However, the ability of such organisations to influence the status quo is limited due to various reasons, including their relative immaturity and their status within the dominant cultural and political context. On the other hand occasional strains are occurring between the civil society and state.”

Mr. Shelly Johnny, Research Scholar, CWAAS, JNU made a presentation on ‘Political Legitimacy of the Monarchy and Civil Society in Jordan’. He disclosed that there is no consensus on the constituent elements of Civil Society in Jordan. “A look at the debate on Jordanian civil society shows that there are two distinctive understandings on the issue. Civil society in Jordan has gained added impetus in Jordan ever since the liberalisation efforts were introduced in 1989. Civil society formations include a host of voluntary organisations, professional associations and non-governmental organisations. Tribal structure also performs the role of civil society in Jordan. While the state has imposed lots of restrictions on the activities of civil society initiatives, the latter has created a space for itself to a certain extent.”

Mr. Moinuddin Ahmad, Research Scholar, CWAS, JMI presented a paper on ‘Role of Israeli Civil Society in Conflict Transformation’. He analysed, “Civil society has always been counted as a major player in conflict transformation. In the case of Israel/Palestine also the Israeli civil society has a huge potential to put pressure on the government and establish peace in the region.” Mr. Ahmad also investigated “the contribution of civil societies to conflict transformation.” He also scrutinised “the presence of and effectiveness of the civil society in Israel in the overwhelming presence of military in the country where it emerged only in 1970s and since then it has undergone a process of social and ideological polarisation.” Mr. Ahmad added, “Civil society in Israel is particularly strained in affecting policy making on national security.”

Ms. Ghazala Shabina, Research Scholar, CWAS, JMI talked about ‘Constitutional Reforms and Political Liberalisation in Egypt under Mubarak’. She emphasised, “In late 2005 President Hosni Mubarak initiated a fundamental overhaul of the 1971 constitution. In political terms, 2006 and the first half of 2007 saw a marked change in the government’s attitude towards the process of reform. One of the first signs was the postponement of the municipal council elections.”

Prof Anwar Alam of CWAS, JMI questioned “the theoretical underpinnings of the notion of civil society and its theoretical potential to unleash the process of political reforms in West Asia” in his paper titled ‘Interrogating the Notion of Civil Society and Its Implications for Political Reforms in West Asia’.

During these two days eminent scholars and area experts reflected on various aspects of the West Asian and North African (WANA) region. Their discussions centred around the focal themes of civil society, democracy and state of the region. The deliberations took place in a highly intellectual atmosphere and the high standards of true scholarship were maintained. Even the opposing views were well taken. The question-answer sessions provided an opportunity for interaction with the speakers. These sessions really opened up the debates on a wide and varied range of issues concerning the WANA.

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