Civil Society and Change in the New Middle East

Creative Commons License

Aktay Y. (Editor) , El-Sharkawy P. (Editor), Uysal A. (Editor)

Stratejik Düşünce enstitüsü, Ankara, 2013

  • Publication Type: Book / Research Book
  • Publication Date: 2013
  • Publisher: Stratejik Düşünce enstitüsü
  • City: Ankara



Yasin Aktay

No one could predict that a few months later a series of revolutions would come out in the Arabic when we gathered in Ankara to hold the first Arab- Turkish Congress of Social Science (ATCOSS). Participants from Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia emphasized the lack of democracy in their countries. It was clear they were in search of a solution or a way out.

In the First ATCOSS a number of manifestations on the transferability of regimes, accountability, supremacy of law, importance of democracy and the dangerous growth of corruption in administration and among the people came out. These manifestations were giving the signs of this quest while yearning for a change in the respective countries.

We decided to hold the second of annual ATCOOSS meeting in Cairo with the title of “The new and non-governmental actors of change in Middle East. At that time, we couldn’t reckon that these people would be the new actors acting as the pioneers of a great transformation only one month later. However, this strong desire and demand for change was making itself felt even at that time. Therefore, on this aspect, the idea of ATCOSS, perhaps, has started to function since its first gathering. It has made the portrait that would enable us to watch the change, name it and even predict its direction.

The Islamic world, instead of being an actor, has only been the object of social science so far. It remained as a world which was subjected to social science, defined through the science done on it and remained as a govern- ment on paper within the extensions of that definition. It started to be called “Middle East” in social sciences and in the whole literature later on. Muslim societies adopted the term themselves too, while there were many question to be asked. It was east according to whom? Whose middle east was the Muslim lands? As Muslim social scientists started to emerge in the field, they could get to ask these questions. The same societies were called “de- veloping countries” or even “underdeveloped countries”. They were called “societies without a history” and “societies falling behind of history and civilization”. They were addressed as “fatalistic”, “populations without a civil society” and “people who can’t make revolutions.”All these definitions and descriptions were not only depicting Turkish and Arabic populations in a simple way but they were also shaping these societies. They were setting up the plot for them while defining them.

Indeed, with their fatalism, these countries looked even “cute” to others because it both made it easier to rule them and looked “exotic”. However, as Muslim societies started to object the fate drawn for them and raise their voice to act independently, they became “bleak”. From this point onward, the strange relationship between Islam and violence started to be the sub- ject of the new social science studies. Islam started to be redefined, and Muslims were tried to be stereotyped. Despite being done in good inten- tions, recent studies on Islamic societies lay stress on the Islam-violence relationship for some reason. In a way, it is true that Islamic world has been trapped in violence for a long time, though. However, the source of this situ- ation is a not a mystery.

Colonialism has consistently sustained its presence in Islamic world for the last two centuries. We all know better now what an orientalist literature emerged from the knowledge of Islamic societies that was generated at the start of colonialism. And when it comes to post-colonial era, it isn’t possible to say that Islamic populations have been swift enough to develop their own knowledge paradigms.

While there was such a gap, western science kept generating ideas and knowledge about the East and Islamic world, because thriving for hegemo- ny in these lands has never stopped. The correlation between “knowledge” and “power” continued, and the process of “middle easternization of Middle East” went on non-stop. Today, the necessity of a Middle East generating its own knowledge is more urgent than ever. We are all witnessing a transfor- mation of consciousness and social change in Middle Eastern populations resulted by media, effects and results of which are felt more quickly com- pared to academic world.

It bears no doubt that the media is one of the most important actors of the transformation taking place in Middle East, and as an actor, media is changing and diversifies. The role played by the newspapers and television channels under state control -at best- in 90s was different than today. The Media of that time was serving the state. Today, the new horizons opened by satellite systems and the Internet media have resulted in a shift of role and put the media among the most important actors of social change. Besides, it is really easy to access to this media. Naturally, this new media system has enlarged the elite class to a great extent and the number of employers in the market hit a peak. Today, almost every city in Turkey has at least one television channel and various radio stations. The total number of people employed in these sectors comprises an important part of society. These people have the opportunity to express their ideas and influence the public opinion about the events occurring in the country every day.

The Internet today is a domain that anybody can easily have an access to, and it plays a role in manipulating public opinion, determining policies as well as allowing intruders to get on the stage. Internet and social media don’t only lead to new socialization channels but also gives a chance to ev- erybody to become an actor in the social change. Just like the invention of printing press letting literacy starting from Europe and let bigger number of people to get into the discussion, it is thanks to the Internet today that bigger revolutions become widespread. So, the Internet serves as an important public domain.

But at this point, we should comprehend well what kind of public domain the Internet is and what kind of role it plays in the process of change. A claim that we heard quite often during Arab spring is that these revolutions are made through the Internet. To tell the truth, overemphasizing the role of the Internet in the revolution causes us to ignore the sociology behind the revo- lution. In addition, since the Internet is used as a symbol of western technol- ogy, such claims seems to be another way of saying that the revolution is made by the western powers. And as a consequence, this just repeats the idea that easterners can’t make any revolution on their own and if there is any, it must have come from the West. However, the Internet is a media, while revolution is a decision. If there is no society to carry it out, technology can’t help anything.

Actually this is just a complicated way of saying something much simpler that we have been hearing since the beginning of the revolution. It is based on the belief that people can’t do anything on their own, and that there is always a superior Westerner behind whatever is happening. As a matter of fact, it is against the nature of substance in social sciences to think of such a great power that sees everything in advance and controls things (it is also against the Islamic belief) because this creates some kind of fatalism and consumes the power of man to be the actor and doer in social happenings. Now that everything is done by a “greater power”, we don’t need to do any- thing. Whatever we do, we won’t be doing anything more than serving the purpose of that greater power. On the other hand, the most important thing needed for change is decision and will and these are what make us human.

And there is no single thing that a human’s willpower can’t change. As the Almighty Allah says Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (TMQ, 13:11)

For this reason, we decided to call the subtopic of this congress as “the actors of change”. By doing this, we wanted to question the approaches in social sciences that look down on human willpower, but we also wanted to highlight how determinative these little actors, namely people using the willpower that Allah has given them, can be. The revolution hadn’t broken out when we decided on this topic. Thankfully, the revolution has answered this idea of ours in a positive way quite soon.

It showed us how little actors, willing to change themselves, can grow into real determining actors. And we also have seen that Allah has changed a tribe that changed things about themselves. We will be learning about and elaborating more on the details of this process.