Civil society, defined here as "institutions autonomous from the state which facilitate orderly economic, social, and political activity," such institutions, from churches to unions, community groups, and professional associations, are is the bedrock of modern liberal society. As such, the elimination of such institutions is central to the total control of society by the state. While the Middle East lags the world badly in formal democracy, its citizens are doing rather better at taking the initiative. Professional associations are frequently vigorous. Local groups provide services (sports, health care). The Kuwaiti diwaniya, described all too briefly here by Jill Crystal, offers a striking example of civil society: vaguely resembling the salon of the French Enlightenment, it brings dozens or hundreds of men together in the evenings to discuss the issues of the day, often including politics.
The essays in these two volumes, the product of a project funded by the Ford Foundation, approvingly present Islamist-dominated private groups as the main form of civil society in the Middle East. Norton argues that Islamist movements will temper their shrill rhetoric and uncompromising stances if allowed the freedom to organize. The thesis that "populist Islam" must be opposed he characterizes as "maliciously dangerous." Saad Eddin Ebrahim suggests that "even the Islamists may evolve into something akin to the `Christian Democrats' in the West." Ahmad Moussali argues that the Islamists are divided, with moderates (a category in which he places many of the most prominent Islamist leaders) "open to dialogue, compromise, and, more importantly, to universal rights, freedom, pluralism, and civil society."
These and the other case studies about the Islamist private associations are mostly thin on facts. With the partial exception of Muhammad Muslih (writing on the Palestinians), Nilüfer Güle (the Turkish Refah Party), and Mustapha Kamil al-Sayyid (Egypt), the authors provide little information on the numbers involved, what services they provide, or where their finances come from, much less data on how such groups have grown or specific information about their political platforms.
The authors take a generally pessimistic view about the state of civil society in the Middle East, outside of Islamist-dominated associations. Ann Mosely Lesch demonstrates that the military government in the Sudan since 1989 has systematically stamped out independent organizations as incompatible with its vision of total Islamization. Sara Roy analyzes the effect of the establishment of PLO government in the Gaza Strip, which increased disputes among the political factions and led to a declining role for the previously vibrant private charities.
It is disturbing to see the willingness of these authors to turn a blind eye to how obscurantist religiously motivated groups that reject the values of modern society, such as equality between men and women. Westernized intellectuals seem to have lost the taste for the battle of ideas, or at least they are unwilling to defend Enlightenment values against the Islamist challengers. The authors of these essays are all too ready to calls for cooperation between reformist elites and moderate Islamists, rather than for the defense of liberal values.