A Discussion with Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Founder, Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo and the Arab Organization for Human Rights

With: Saad Eddin Ibrahim Berkley Center Profile

December 12, 2007

Background: Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo and a prominent human rights activist in Egypt. Ibrahim founded the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo and the Arab Organization for Human Rights. He has been criticized for accepting international funds to promote civil society and election monitoring in Egypt, and for suggesting that the United States should condition its aid to Egypt on improvements in the country's human rights record. Ibrahim is currently working with the Arab Democracy Foundation in Doha to promote philanthropy and Arab investment in development. In this interview, Ibrahim speaks about his involvement in the promotion of human rights and civil liberties in Egypt. He also shares how Islam has impacted his work and the work of others in human rights development.

You are a much admired figure in human rights and other circles. As one of the most prominent Arab sociologists, you are an authority in this field and have published widely on Islam, politics, democracy, citizenship, and civil society. Much attention centered on your arrest in your country, Egypt, in 2000, on charges that many viewed as politically motivated. Leaving that remarkable story aside for now, can you tell me some highlights about what you are doing today?

I am a professor at the American University of Cairo. I am indeed running for my life and freedom these days, still contending with a wide range of legal cases and charges by party members in Egypt. Mubarak in particular has been very hostile to me, as is evident in my legal and political problems. But my case is by no means unique, though it is particularly high profile. Many others are also struggling.

But meanwhile, I am engaged in several civil society activities in Arab world. The main ongoing activity for me and my center (which joins that of a number of similar organizations) aims above all to put pressure on rulers in the region to democratize and to achieve more participatory governance. Some rulers, not very many, have responded positively, but most have ignored the call or have become hostile. More broadly, I am working on the development of philanthropy, working through a new organization in Doha, the Arab Democracy Foundation. It is to be a grant making foundation, and it has the blessing and endorsement of Qatar's first lady, Sheikha Moussa, who is helping to get it off the ground. So for various reasons I am spending most of my time in Doha these days, and when I am not engaged in the Foundation I am doing research and writing, and working more broadly to encourage civil society organizations to become better established and to develop.

The Foundation's work is also part of a broader movement, or effort to encourage well-to-do Arabs, and there are a number of them with the second oil boom, either subtly or through more intentional messages, to establish foundations that serve the public interest, and thus to help turn traditional kinds of philanthropy and good will into more development oriented work. Some have responded, and some are still toying with the idea. Hopefully we will see them get into a more competitive mood, until the movement becomes a critical mass. There are 20 foundations already that I know of, and probably more. Within the next five years we hope to multiply that by ten times. The financial resources are there, and with some competition and with some consciousness raising, we can get these business and political leaders to devote resources, and revive the best traditions of Islamic endowment.

More broadly, I am keenly interested in the fast pace of change in civil society organizations and the way they are linked to development, finance, and changing roles of the state. Non state actors have a long history in Muslim societies, though over time the impulse for charitable work has shrunk. There is a new move today towards restoring faith in volunteerism. I am very much interested in these trends, and thus in the project before us.

Can you comment on the religious elements in your work? As a start, how far are Islam-inspired organizations part of your work on civil society organizations? We are aware from our research work and discussions that relations between civil society organizations and religion need to be framed somewhat differently in the Muslim world than they are, for example, in the United States where faith-based organizations are a well understood, if very complex, category.

My first suggestion, which I have advanced in more than one setting recently, is that we avoid the term Islamic and instead use Muslim. Using the word Islamic or Islamist tends to bring one quickly to an entanglement with militancy, terrorism, and concerns about violence. It creates or provokes sensitivities, not only in Muslim countries, and between different parts of civil society, whether they are faith or secular inspired, and governments, and between all of the above and the external world. Let us instead talk about people. People are Muslims, and if we focus on people it will naturally take us to use the word Muslim.

It would make a significant difference if we could get some movement or drive in that direction. The key is that we focus on human beings and societies, not metaphysics. These issues are not about theology, nor are they abstractions.

My second suggestion turns on the use of the term “faith." Any collective work has an element of faith in it. The question is, what kind of faith? Does it involve use of faith for mobilization or service? How is that faith described, mobilized, and used? I see much merit in looking at these elements of faith, using criteria of performance and looking at results.

Can you give some insights from your experience about trends in Muslim philanthropy?

There is an extraordinary history, well reflected in a large literature, about Muslim thinking and action on philanthropy. The many different forms of charitable endowments, or habbous, as they are known in some countries, are a reflection of both history and contemporary practice. Morocco is a fascinating example here, as a country rich in history and tradition, as well as several contemporary adaptations, including in these areas of philanthropy and Muslim endowments.

There is much talk today about the “bottom billion” in terms of welfare and income. Many of these people are Muslim. I would like to explore the question: if so many of the world's poorest people are Muslims, what does it mean in terms of action and programs?

What it most clearly means is that indeed we need to ask the question: what should we do differently. The question can indeed be asked in ways that raise sensitivities so care is needed in framing the question. Avoiding both religious and cultural sensitivities is important. But the questions are well worth raising.

Today, at a conference in Rome, I explored the question of democracy and the Muslim countries. The implicit assumption behind the question that many raise is doubt as to whether there is a compatibility between Islam and democracy. There is a common wisdom that somehow the two are incompatible.My suggestion was to explore the facts, and do some empirical testing. If there are perhaps 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, let us look at the regimes they live under, the kind of democracy their societies have produced. Look at Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Nigeria, and Senegal. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that perhaps two thirds of Muslims worldwide live under clearly democratic regimes. These regimes are far from perfect, far from mature or established. But they do have elected governments, functioning parliaments, and alternating regimes.

That does leave one third that do not live under such regimes. It happens that most are in the Arab world. We have to explain that. The exploration of why takes us to other, also important and interesting and highly debatable questions. It is well worth the effort to raise and frame questions like these. And while the give and take of an academic environment allows anyone to raise any question, there is some merit on such sensitive topics to have some of the questions coming from a Muslim researcher.

Can you give more sense of what your civil society work is doing and the issues it is raising? What kinds of organizations are you working with and how do they relate to religion?

Obviously civil society is highly complex with countless organizations. My view is that what is most useful is to explore and investigate them along a continuum.

There are institutions that have religion as part of their public agenda. They register themselves as religious organizations. Egypt has something like 22,000 NGOs registered at present, and about 60 percent have some kind of religious affiliation, simply in their title. Some are Christian, some Muslim. That identification following nominal and self identification is one cut.

A second perspective or cut is to look at financing sources and origins. There are organizations that have been created by or are affiliated directly with government ministries. Many of these are linked to religious endowments, and are supported or aided by them. Their missions tend to be focused on giving help to people and to engaging in development. These organizations may call themselves Islamic or Christian or whatever. While what they call themselves, in their title or program, is interesting, what is more interesting is their daily work.

Then there are the ones that are culturally leaning towards religion; many of these also have a political agenda. This group might include, for example, in Morocco the Development and Justice Party, which is engaged seriously in development and welfare work. In Egypt I would include the Muslim Brotherhood in this category. These organizations have a political agenda which they do not hide, yet they are very much involved in welfare and development work. Such mapping offers a way of classifying and identifying the many institutions.

Where would you fit some of the Sufi networks and institutions?

Here I come back very much to the continuum I traced, which starts from largely apolitical institutions and tendencies, under which I would put the Sufi movements, all the way to highly political and militant activists. In this category, I would put Hamas and Hezbollah. The Sufi movements should be looked at in this different light. In several places, Morocco among them, these Sufi type organizations are more prevalent, and their number and activities seem to be increasing. There are also Sufist leaning movements in sub-Saharan Africa. The number tends to decrease as you move east, until you reach Turkey, on the other side of the geographic span, and there also you will find lots of Sufi groups, especially in Anatolia. Mapping these organizations, starting with how they identify themselves, is a very interesting exercise.

A question I am currently battling with is fungibility—could organizations that started out as Sufi move on that continuum to become more politicized and vice versa? I am well aware that we are seeing some cases of what were undoubedly political movements that have moved towards a more apolitical, spiritualist ethos. There are some concrete examples. One illustration of movement is the Egyptian Brotherhood, which started from a Sufi movement. It has over time moved towards being more politicized, but it has never really abandoned the service part, in its mission for charitable, philanthropic work.

What do you see as trends among movements? In other faiths “movements” are significant, for example in South Asia, and the Gulen Movement might fit in this category. Is this something of a trend and what forms do you see them taking in the Muslim world?

In the continuum I describe, these movements, and Gulen in particular, are more oriented towards business. But the categories and definitions are not iron clad. What is useful is to look at what elements there are in each organization or movement that can be looked at as spiritual, Sufist, social, or cultural, and how many elements tend more towards the activist or political. A challenge is to see under what conditions some elements will prevail and dominate, and which will not. But, at the end, it is important to recognize that any of these movements cater to the needs of their members, their constituencies. If, for example, members demand or aspire to do education, charity, or development, the movement has to and will respond.

It is also useful to remember that movements may change direction, may change the nature of their activities, to respond to international developments as well as local. Again, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and some Islamic groups in Egypt are examples.

Various commentators have noted that women are particularly active in the social areas and in civil society work. What do you see as trends and patterns here?

That is of course very true. The more that organizations do education and welfare work, the more you see women's involvement. The closer the issue and work is to the family, the more leadership and actors tend to be women.

If you see civil society as the public space that lies between the family and the state, the closer in to the family space you move, the more women are involved. Thus, where education, welfare and charity, and development, in that order, are concerned, the more you see women engaged. This work seems to suit their temperaments; it tends to be less confrontational, less problematic.

Less threatening?

Yes, exactly, less threatening.

Can you highlight any special instances of particular success?

There are many new forms of community activism across the Arab and Muslim world today. I see many of them in Egypt. There are for example a set of initiatives that start with students, who work on recycling, and use the products to cater to the needs of the very poor. Food banks are mushrooming in Egypt, again with the effort focused on the very poor. This is perhaps not new in a global sense but it is in this region and it now involves hundreds of thousands of volunteers. There is a focus on linking religious practices and beliefs, for example fasting at Ramadan, and the feast of sacrifice. What we are seeing is an impulse to share and to translate traditional practices into new forms.

As you look at the Berkley Luce FBO project and December conference, what are the issues you would most like to see addressed?

The topic is live and important and it offers many areas for investigation and discussion. Broadly understanding the role of religion within the frame of emerging civil society trends is a useful lens. And, as we discussed, looking at the wide diversity of organizations and patterns and looking to the more positive strands and trends has great merit.

Let me mention one specific idea that relates to religion. An area that deserves focus and action is the training of imams. This is part of the broader need for Muslims to make peace with themselves and the world. What is happening is that religious spokesmen are sent overseas with little preparation and training and this can cause significant problems. They know too little about other religions and often their own. Because of this they can demean the rest. A focus on training of imams, in history and comparative culture, could be helpful.

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