Is mahalla an Eastern analogue to Western concept of civil society?

Saidbek Goziev
Doctor in  Social Sciences, Polish Academy of Sciences (Warsaw).

The present article examines the phenomenon of mahalla, а traditional social institution in Tajikistan: its social role, similarities with NGO and functions are discussed amidst the testing the possibility of the comparison between mahalla and civil society. The Eastern term of mahalla as a counterpart of the Western term of civil society elevates its pro-democratic potentiality, since civil society is regarded as one of the preconditions for the successful development of democracy. In opposite to the biased views on Islam, as a religion reducing the possibilities of the democracy for example popularized through the wide-known and wide-discussed Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, the mahalla in its turn highly secures the thesis on authentic capacity to organize community life in self-profitable way.
Mahalla as Eastern analogue to Western civil society
In the beginning some comparisons are needed. For the contemporary Russian readers the presentation of the mahalla, the Tajik old-aged social institution, has to be comparative, better to say the first sketches of the definition will become clear with the assistance of the comparison with the phenomenon of civil society. So in what degree is mahalla similar/or identical/or a bit different, i.e. authentic regarding the civil society?
Some historical notes are needed. The very word mahalla derives from the Arabic word المحلة, which, like mahall and the plural form لاتح مـ (from the same root, áﺣ), originally means a place where one makes a halt. Mahalla, therefore, came to have the special meaning of a quarter of a town, a meaning which has also passed into the Persian, Turkish and Hindustani languages (where the popular pronunciation is muhalla). In general terms, the term formerly applied to a quarter of a town: for example, in Egypt, the word of mahalla is regularly found as the first element in the names of towns and villages.
In the case of Central Asian countries, especially in Tajikistan, mahalla predominantly means a council or community of people in which all local problems are discussed and resolved. Literally, in the English language, mahalla means “neighborhood”. According to Moryakova , the concept of the mahalla became visible in the 10th century. The first mentioning about mahalla was found in Narshakhi’s book “History of Bukhara” which was written in the X century in Arabic, and letter translated into Persian in the XII century.
The structure of mahalla has been preserved in Tajikistan up until the current day. Nowadays every mahalla has its leader – rais of mahalla – chosen by the members of that community. Every street has its heads of streets, and they are subordinated to the chairman of the community. The meeting of rais and the council of elders usually has an informal character. Their meetings are held in social places (in gaps) or mosques, in tea-houses (choikhona), or other places where mature males meet and discuss their interests and their concerns about society. Another example of activity is collecting money for example for the purchase of vaccines aimed to protect all children living in one territory from the epidemic polio. Consistent with the tradition of Islam, the faithful members are obliged to spend 2.5 percent of their income to help needy people. This kind of charity is called zakat in Islam. Well, I have personally witnessed several times where wealthy people from one mahalla divide the collected zakat not merely for its poor members but among poor people from neighboring mahallas.
Every mahalla has some financial rites coming from the charitable contribution of the members of the community. The members of the mahalla often gather for mahalla meetings to discuss and solve the problems of the community. For example, they also have the power to decide using the funds if it is necessary to construct public buildings, hospitals, schools, mosques, teahouses, homes for widows, housing for elderly people, and other buildings. In the vast majority of cases, the source of this finance is charity contributions.
In its turn the concept of civil society has not been known for the Tajiks until the systematic change that began with the collapse of USSR in 1991. The Tajiks were introduced to these concepts only with appearance of the  first Western aid organizations, which have already started to work there  during the Civil War (emerged in 1992). For the managers of Western organizations  coming to Tajikistan during that time and now, NGOs were the equivalent of civil society.  Also, the idea of ​​civil society with the NGO’s brought with them resulted in changes to the legislation imposed by the Western countries and organizations such as OSCE. In the Tajik Law regarding civil society as an institution of such society takes into account the sole NGO’s. The notion of civil society has become of raising importance not only in Western countries but in many parts of the world. It is a type of association in among the individuals and the state, a free area which is protected however not hindered by the state. Habermas’ public sphere points to the meaning of civil society. According to him, public sphere first of all is a sphere of life world where public opinion can be shaped. Principally, the door to the public sphere is open to all people who then act mutually, they are not limited. In civil society people can meet together, associate and freely share their opinion. In this case, civil society can be illustrated as the arena of organizations, social movements, voluntary organizations and citizen associations, as the same time as public communication. Civil society therefore is separate from the economy, state and political society.
In Western countries, the survival of a public sphere reflects the double division of the individual with state in the public sphere, with society in the private. This notion of society symbolizes an opposition among the free individuals and associations which does not exist in traditional Asian thought. The Tajiks thinking like another Asian people pay far more consideration to the organic relation of individual with associations, state and places greater prominence on the obligation of the individual to the society or the state. It takes family, ties and world as a unitary whole, of which the individuals is only a part of it.
In contrary to the Western society, the Tajik society is based on the thought of community as earlier for the individual and on the moral code of the group of people governing the life of the individuals. The values as reason, self-interest and contracts do not tie individual to the community. In case of neighborhoods in communities, person is born in a community- it is not a creation of choice. The ties are of blood, affiliation, kinship and love. In such societies, the individual is not a autonomous totally or atom however rather a part of the community and submissive thereto.
In present time most researchers examining the absence of civil society in one country, take into consideration the number of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’S), associations and etc. They are not taking into consideration the historical, cultural and social differences between countries (especially between Eastern and Western countries). All countries in these two parts of the World had their historical progress and their way of living. Every country has its specific feature. Therefore, I think that every country has its specific civil society. If we compare civil society in an Eastern country with Western society of course it is not possible that everything will be exactly like in the West. We can find some similarities and of course some differences. However, if we will compare the civil society or activity of some traditional communities with the classical theories of civil society, we can find similarities. Consequently, as it has been mentioned above, every country has their own typical civil society. For example: Chinese civil society, Russian civil society, Tajik civil society and etc.
These questions are legitimate because we arise them reflecting upon civil society. These questions also highlight the significance of searching for civil society’s notion and definition not within the Western contexts but within the Eastern social environment. Orientation to the European model can be helpful for comparison, to emphasize similarities and differences between the Western and Eastern concepts of civil society, together in their theoretical explanation and their historical existence. Such a comparison is a requisite, as it gives the Eastern people more understanding about where they are and how they can help to provide a new framework which is culturally sensitive and is appropriate.
Many Eastern scholars and researchers have proposed definitions of civil society. These researches estimate the elements and uniqueness of civil society in Eastern world as they measure up to Western values and standards. From my point of view these explanation, in context, specify a misunderstanding of the notion. The definitions rest on a collection of elements and notions of civil society as they exist outside the Eastern world. That is, they do not seek to discover the origin of the idea in the society itself. For finding the origin of the concept, it will be useful to examine its meaning in the specific language of the country which is a case study. Although most important how the idea has been applied.
Traditional model of civil society all the time has been a part of Central Asia, with some mechanisms reinforced and others concealed by Communist regime. In the past, the masjid (mosque), choikhona (teahouse), and bazaar (market) were places of community dialogue and discussion. Additionally, voluntary cooperation was a part of people’s life in Tajikistan before Communism, during Communist rule and in present time, regularly referred to as hashar (assembling, community work). Before independence, and encouraged by Gorbachev’s glasnost, informal modern civil society bodies and debate groups such as Ehyo (Renewal) and Ru ba Ru (Face-to-Face), from the urban intelligentsia, were also formed. This form of civil society is based largely on “’trust and solidarity networks’ associated with kinship ties”. Mahalla presents a centuries-old tradition that is deeply enrooted not only in the social sphere. Its cultural components are expressed in Islamic religion that influences on the values, every-day behavior of the members of mahalla.
Mahalla tackles the bias and proves its pro-democratic capacity
In my opinion, such an attitude towards the  mahalla in the Western projection of civil society in Tajikistan is a consequence of the fact that the institution of mahalla is based on Islam.  Already in the 1980s,  Samuel Huntington  was first to pointed out firmly that in any of the countries where the religion is Islam, there is no democracy. This view was echoed in the immensely influential book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order published in 1996. Under the influence of this book, it became a popular view in the West that Islam is the enemy of Christian civilization and its values.  I believe that this thesis in its turn  influenced the views of politicians, lawyers and Western managers who reject the idea that  mahalla could be an important instrument for building civil society.
Reflecting on democracy in Muslim countries, the Westerners usually have adopted a misconception that religion is the impediment in the route to democracy. Both representatives of the extreme Christian rights and the followers of the ideology of liberalism  believe that their values ​​are universal. In turn, in theories of social change adopted in Western science, in general, culture is not considered as an agent of social change. For these two reasons, the dangers of political change in Central Asia proved to be susceptible to Huntington’s assertions about the role of Islam. Although   Huntington himself, by criticizing the views of  social sciences  on the development of in the Third world societies,  postulated the necessity to consider culture as an important factor in the processes occurring  them. In my interpretation, Huntington did not provide the deep knowledge about cultures. This is reflected in the concept of civilization of which he operates. Till now as a result, the concept of civilization is overlapped with the concept of culture, which achieved a high level of development.
The only dispute was which cultural attribute had achieved this level of development. According to the tradition of the nineteenth century, the attribute of civilization would be  literacy. In the twentieth century, following Australian archeologist Gordon Childe, the attribute of civilization was urbanization. Recognizing religion as the only attribute of civilization, Huntington has demonstrated that he understands neither the culture, nor the relationship between the concept of culture and the concept of civilization. In my strong opinion, he did not avoid the prejudice against Islam present in Western culture since the Crusades. His vision of the world, in which conflicts between cultures become inevitable, announce the conflict between Islam and Christianity. In this way, Islam in his discussion is always a potential enemy to Christianity, and Islamic civilization is a negation of the values ​​upon which Christian Western civilization rests.
It is also needed to present a large number of the critical feedbacks Clash of Civilizations has invoked in the milieu of the scholars and researchers. I would like to sketch those that in my opinion are significant and reflect my own interpretation of the main theses of the work. Firstly, such grand works as Fukuyama’s End of History and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations attempted to provide answers to the central political questions of the post Cold War world. However, both theses faced criticism for their particular assumptions. Fukuyama’s analysis was disparaged for not sufficiently weighing the national and religious revival that had taken place in the former Soviet Union and the wider world as societies emerging from the Cold War sought to reclaim their pasts and their cultures. These “spiritual” movements reflected the continuing appeal of alternatives to liberalism, and many were openly hostile to the West, rejecting Western liberalism as arrogant, exploitative, morally bankrupt, and obsessed with the satisfaction of individual material needs. The End of History thus represents an unjustified assumption of liberalism’s superiority and destiny as the universal civilization to which all would ultimately subscribe.
Secondly, there are two basic problems with the Clash of Civilizations theory. First off, the methodological foundations of the thesis involve a program of categorizing the peoples of the world according to one, supposedly objective system. To classify individuals unhesitatingly as members of civilizations (for example as members of “the Western world,” or “the Islamic world,” or “the Buddhist world”) is overly reductionist and ignores numerous other affiliations, such as by profession, industry, politics, and education. Second off, the civilizational categories are far from clear-cut; the misreading of history attached to this categorization overlooks each culture’s complexities and neglects historical interactions between them. Around the world, there are nearly one and a half billion Muslims, most of whom are not Arabs, and whose priorities and cultures are very diverse. Moreover, the Islamic world, just like other civilizations, is divided into states, each with its own interests and cultural traits, and often engaged in conflict with each other rather than with the West.
Thirdly, referring to Fouad Ajami, it is not civilizations that control states but, rather, states that control civilizations. During the past several decades, the governments of two states in the Middle East that have most frequently invoked religion to legitimize their rule have been Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yet Saudi Arabia has remained a staunch American ally, while Iran has been labeled an active opponent of U.S. foreign policy. Moreover, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, many major Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt, acted against Huntington’s formula by joining the United States in a war against their fellow Muslim state of Iraq.
Fourthly, among the recent publications there is the accent on the identity problem. The very attitude to the Muslims is prone to the building the image of the “others” where otherness is inevitably hostile, politically dangerous, in view of Chaklader Mahboob-ul Alam, an author of article Huntington Was Wrong . The identity of Muslims constructed by Huntington is based on the religion – that is correctly plays a crucial role in the life of the Muslims – but the very approach is one-way, and because of this shortcoming this one-side identity is seen disadvantageous, and as result Muslims are denied from the possibility to build democratically-based society, to open dialogue with other nations from other parts of the world, in a short they are deprived from the goods enjoyed by the Western world.
For instance, the idea of the polycentric and the idea of the rights of nations might be examined under one guiding theme: anti-globalization of world order and pluralism of nations and can be added to the discussion/critique of Huntington’s theory. In this regard, it is relevant to refer to Karl Schmitt, 20th century German political philosopher, lawyer and historian. The entire corpus of his political philosophy was saturated with the geo-political views and based on the concept of rights of nations (Volksrechte). The very concept is opposite to the liberal view and hierarchical divisions of strong and weak nations (countries of the first, second and third world) and in fact is amicable to polycentrism and pluralism where every nation has the right to express its cultural and ethnic peculiarity and to transmit this right to the land. The rights of nations implies the rights to land; the possession and cultivation of the land the nation exists on. Thus, the right to land is legitimated when and only when the land is inhabited by man, i.e. the nation, in general.
For his part, Samuel Huntington recalls Schmitt’s friend-enemy dichotomy of political relations and accentuates the political rather than cultural or ethnic undertones. Any political antagonism can be read in terms of friend-enemy relations (for Schmitt the friend-enemy relations are historically changeable). Schmitt’s nomos is applicable in the context of the clash of civilizations, to understand the subsequent consequences of the later: territorial expansion, wars and colonization, indeed intensify the thesis that the cultural (religious, ethnic) differences have served as the promoting factor. Albeit, again referring to the concept of nomos the expansion of area has been motivated by such driving impulses as the change of the spatial order of one community.
The religiously-motivated conflict – clash of civilizations – as a final phase in the relations between nations for Huntington – is presented as an inescapable form of relations between nations, culminated in war. Comparing this with Schmitt, Huntington’s political theory is seen as a simplistic one, where the idea of ‘the clash’ as elaborated by him, presents just one space in the line of conflicts/wars which are constantly changing each other throughout the history of humanity. The wars therefore happen periodically and define and signify the change of the world order (and the world map consequently). The final confrontation between nations are to end with the emergence of a big space (Grossraum ); it can be a polycentric pan-national union of nations under Empire, leading by one political will rather than merely economic, cultural, religious or ethnic preconditions.
In my interpretation, the clash of civilizations implies the clash or old confrontation between East and West, as presented in a bright and detailed manner by the prominent scholar Edward Said in Orientalism. The orientalistic biases, which in Said’s view are of political significance, still are not removed from the agenda of the international arena. In the bipolar vision of the world, despite its cultural narrowness and explicit ignorance of its diversity, the multicultural premise is a type of justification for breaking up the conflicts from a local to a global scale. Apropos, Chaklader Mahboob-ul Alam refers to Said as an open critic of Huntington’s theses. He cites Said’s explanation of the core of his critique: the confrontation between two extremes is prone to ignore the interdependencies, the multiple-identities and the multicultural context of the ever-changing world: “ Huntington’s categorisation of the world’s fixed “civilizations” omitted the dynamic interdependence and interaction of cultures over the centuries.”
Reading the works of Western authors, I rarely found any of them to have a real understanding of the relationships that exist between the cultures of Muslim societies and the religion of Islam. Only a very few Western scholars are aware of the fact that the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam is tolerant towards tradition. It accepted local customary adat and accordingly adapted to it, and did not change them.  If there are no democratic institutions in Muslim societies, it is always characteristic of the culture, and it is not the fault of the religion. It is the fact that Islam encourages certain organizational and associational forms in which authority is chosen, as is the case of mahalla. Even in such radical forms of Islam such as Islamic fundamentalism, which seeks to restore the Caliphate, is the application of the view that the Caliph would be chosen by the believers.
Emphasizing that religion is the basis of the mahalla institution I should warn against any possible misunderstanding. The independence of NGOs lies in the fact that their choice of targets and methods of action are unfettered from the government institutions, business, sponsors, etc., but also from religious institutions. I think that there is a misunderstanding of Islam in the West. In my opinion, there is a tendency in the West to not be fully aware of differences between Islam and Christianity. In all its versions Christianity exists as a church, as a hierarchical organization. However, Islam is a religion supporting the self-governing communities. It is a historical fact that the Tajik people underwent not one attempt to subdue religious communities. For instance, in Tsarist Russia and later in the Soviet Union institutions towards that end such as: Duechownoe Uprawlenie Muzułman Sredni Azii i Kazachstana (Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims in Central Asia and Kazakhstan) has been founded. However, as I mentioned above, such attempts could not fully subordinate the mahalla which, despite the above discussed repressions, remained partially independent. In this striving for independence mahalla tries to continue to exist.
Thus, independent from some similarities between mahalla and the institutions of civil society in the West, there are differences in the purpose of their functions. However, mahalla produces a significantly higher level of trust between its members than is possible  in the institutions of civil society in the West. Mahalla also differs from the Western civil society institutions in that it is not exposed to the fluctuation of participants in joint activities or their withdrawal, depending on the whim of the individual. In my opinion, it has a few unquestionable advantages over the Western civil society. In mahalla, where the members participate in the most important events in the life of each residents, such as marriage, birth of a child, the rite of circumcision, sickness, and bereavement, and where by reason of living together for generations, many families became related to each other by forming special bonds of solidarity. As it has been abovementioned, there is also a very huge capital of trust.
The recognition of mahalla as a civil society institution, in my opinion, interferes with the convictions of managers of Western organizations, who hold the believe that modernization is the opposite of tradition. Mahalla is a traditional institution, however, due to its historical role in Tajik society, mahalla is capable of protecting the interests of its members better than the Western institutions (such as NGO’s) that have been introduced here recently. Despite the biases about the incapability for the building of the democratic foundations (the biases mostly based on the absence of in-depth understanding of the cultural and religious context of the Asian countries ) mahalla by the proper organization and management of daily life manifests the long-ago presented preconditions for democracy.

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