On October 19th, 20016, Professor Philip Oxhorn from McGill University delivered a lecture at The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), entitled “”Civil Society, Democracy and the Role of Religion: Tunisia’s Experience from the Perspective of Latin American Countries”.
In his early remarks, Professor Oxhorn tried to conceptualize civil society as he reasons that there is no unique definition to it. In this context, he defined civil society as “organizations created by the people themselves.” Accordingly, these organizations have distinctive priorities and define their very own interests. In this vein, without civil society, Professor Oxhorn thinks it is impossible to have a democracy as it is difficult for citizens to organize themselves, interact with the State and participate actively in the country’s general affairs. Civil society therefore becomes a mechanism for the resolution of conflicts within the state in a peaceful and constructive way, through “non-violent forms of political participation”.
Professor Oxhorn considers that a strong civil society allows even its weakest elements to organize themselves and participate effectively in the elaboration of their own interests. For civil society to be decisive, there must be a “minimal societal consensus” among citizens that expresses their public will in engaging in non-violent methods when defining their citizenship. Likewise the right of other groups to express and do the same has to be respected. According to him, violence is “apathetical” to civil society.
Contrary to social capital theory in the United States-which places trust as a prerequisite of civil society- according to Professor Oxhorn it is precisely because of the absence of high level of trust that civil society’s role is more important. When trust is absent, civil society elements try to organize themselves in a manner that allows their interest to be heard and considered. In the case of country in transitions, trust emerges as a result of the success of civil society.
In the course of his key note, Professor Oxhorn also addressed the role of religion in its interaction with civil society. In his view, there are those who think that religion and civil society are apathetical (i.e. indifferent to each other) but, according to him, this is false and counterproductive. In the Latin American context most people are catholic and Christian political parties are, in his words, “some of the most active political groups.” It is for this reason that one cannot say that Church and civil societies are separate. Prudence is however necessary when considering certain religious groups that portray themselves as active civil society elements. As a sharp example, Professor Oxhorn argues that Ku Klux Klan is not part of civil society, as any religious group has to accept the fact they are “part of a larger whole” and ready to coexist with other religious groups. In this sense, extremists groups as ISIS or Ku Klux Klan are the enemies of civil society. In this vein, Professor Oxhorn, argues, in this regard, that “religions are not defined by their extremes”.
Furthermore, still according to Professor Oxhorn non-democratic governments work against civil society because the later obliges them to open up and be held accountable and for their actions. But, when the military opts for repression, it blocks democratic transition, heighten polarization and lead to non-democratic revolutions. On the contrary, when the military chooses not to repress, they open the way for positive change and transition to democracy as in South Africa and Latin American countries. Professor Oxhorn thinks that transition to democracy needs to come from civil society through organizations. For when the public demands transition to democracy, it implies greater chances of success. And as in Latin America, mobilization is crucial for change to come about. Yet, the process might take a long time. For example, in Argentina transition was quicker than in other Latin American countries as Chile where it took seven years just to get into democratic elections.
Professor Oxhorn furthermore reminded that the Catholic Church championed the demand for democracy even though the Church is a patriarchal and non-democratic institution. It also facilitated the growth of civil society outside its boundaries-such as women groups, as well as atheists and communists. The rational here, Professor Oxhorn argues, lies the fact that the Catholic Church understood the necessity of a minimal societal consensus and was convinced that the “solution for Latin America is democracy”.
Regarding the Tunisian experience, according to Professor Oxhorn the 2015 Nobel Prize winne, the “Quartet”, represented civil society in different ways: mediating conflict, constraining extremes and championing consensus were some of the reasons why Tunisia won the Nobel peace prize. The Tunisian case runs in diametrically different sense to that of Egypt. In Cairo, civil society was unbalanced and the Muslim Brotherhood, being a mix of social movement and political party could not be counterbalanced by other civil society forces that did not have a unified self-constituted organization. This led the Muslim Brotherhood to become very powerful and consequently resulted in the incapacity of civil society to constrain them and this is why, according to Professor Oxhor, the Arab spring came to a crushing hole in Egypt and why liberals and student groups supported a coup d’état as they thought it was a better alternative to what was back then.
During the debate, former Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh, who was present at the Conference, inquired whether the question of religion and democracy is still posed in Latin American and if the relation between the two is clashing. In addressing this question, Professor Oxhorn pointed out that the basic mainstream religions promote is conciliation and uniting societies on the basis of respect and with the demise of the extreme left. In Latin America more alternatives were available for people to latch on. Following the intervention of Mr Ali Laarayedh, more participants dwelled on role of civil society in conflict resolution recalling the quartet historic role in shoring Tunisia to safety. Others participants considered that external actors’ efforts to variant degrees were conductive in the success of Tunisian experience. Another participant also underlined the importance of reconfiguring the relation between civil society and the people in a way that keeps the former at the service of the latter and not the elite.