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Pakistan: Civil and Uncivil Society

The classical and western understanding of civil society suggests that by being "against the state" in some way, and especially by being against an autocratic and undemocratic state, civil society is necessarily on the side of some form of democratic disposition. Not so in Pakistan, where the question has not been one of democracy versus non-democratic norms, but of "liberalism" against the perceived and variously interpreted Islamic symbols and values.

Letter from South Asia


Civil and Uncivil Society

The classical and western understanding of civil society suggests that by being “against the state” in some way, and especially by being against an autocratic and undemocratic state, civil society is necessarily on the side of some form of democratic disposition. Not so in Pakistan, where the question has not been one of democracy versus non-democratic norms, but of “liberalism” against the perceived and variously interpreted Islamic symbols and values.


he term “civil society” is a complicated term, which means different things to different people and is used in different contexts. Even in western societies, where the notion of the term evolved following Locke and Hegel, it has a changing meaning. While the meaning of the notion “civil society” is more rooted in the western tradition, late 20th century events have made the category more fluid, with its actors and constituents moving in and out of the realm of civil society over a period of time.

In the countries of the “east” and the “south”, the location of the term “civil society” and its meaning becomes more complicated when concepts from the west are imported wholesale. The presence of indigenous systems of belief, organisation and politics in such countries gives, or should give, the western meaning of the term a very different contextual slant. In Muslim and Islamic countries, even those, which have embraced – or have had it forced upon them – modernisation of the western kind wholeheartedly, the meaning of civil society becomes problematic. Moreover, within the Muslim world, civil society has different meanings: in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia or Pakistan, the particularities of their own historical specificities might help distinguish between different forms, notions and expressions of civil society and its actors and organisations. But perhaps more than any similarity across the Muslim world on account of being Muslim, it is very likely that the differences on account of their particular politics and history account for considerably different forms of the expression of civil society.

While there are different notions and contexts about what civil society is and is not, there is at least some broad agreement about what it must necessarily be. Civil society is necessarily supposed to be outside, and perhaps preferably in opposition to or in contradiction with the state. In order to define civil society, it is a requirement that the organisations and actors of civil society not be controlled by the institutions or actors of the state. This “autonomous” requirement is a necessary condition to distinguish civil society from the state. For some more radical thinkers, the stricter requirement is that civil society must stand against both state and market, and particularly against economic liberalism, and for them the “state, market and civil society are rival channels for the exercise of power”. For other theorists, civil society must necessarily be a democratising force. Howsoever one defines civil society and its constituents, the Pakistani case offers interesting (and contradictory) insights about the nature, form and location of civil society. It also shows the large number of contradictions which constitute the political settlement that is Pakistan.

Pakistan is ruled by a general who took power non-constitutionally through a coup against a democratically elected prime minister who was deposed and exiled. Due to the lack of institutional development and institutional deepening, Pakistan’s macro and micro trajectory and development are highly dependent on the whims and fancies of the individual who happens to be in charge, whether at the national/ country level, or as the head of a research centre or a public sector institution.

Individuals matter more in Pakistan than they do in many countries in the region where some form of institutional constraints and “checks and balances” are in place, whether they be in the form of a parliament or even where there is a tradition of active and vibrant politics. While social forces do play a role in determining the nature and direction of social, political and economic development, Pakistan’s experience has shown that Ayub Khan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and general Zia ul Haq have all had their own marked influence. General Musharraf is part of that same tradition.

Despite the fact that he overthrew an elected prime minister, albeit an incompetent one (not unlike the one he himself had replaced), the largest and most public support for Musharraf in October 1999 came from the socially and culturally liberal and westernised section of Pakistan’s elite, who embraced Musharraf as one of their own, which he very much was. Activists in the NGO movement in Pakistan were also vociferous in their support for Musharraf, precisely because he was seen as a “liberal” and westernised man and some prominent members of the NGO movement, who had struggled for a democratic order in Pakistan under general Zia, actually joined Musharraf’s cabinet. Employers’ associations, trade bodies, women’s groups, and other such groupings which are all part of some acceptable notion of “civil society”, also heralded the overthrow because Musharraf was a modernising man. Some intellectuals and peace and anti-nuclear activists also celebrated the arrival of a liberal head of state. Clearly, for the westernised sections of civil society in Pakistan, the military general, who had overthrown a democratically elected prime minister, was seen as Pakistan’s latest saviour. Musharraf’s earliest critics and opponents included what one can call, due to a lack of another term, Islamic civil society, not because the latter were more democratic, but because they did not like his liberalism and westernisation. The classical and western literature on civil society suggests that by being “against the state” in some way, and especially by being against the autocratic undemocratic state, civil society is necessarily on the side of some form of democratic disposition. Not so in Pakistan.

For civil society in Pakistan, whether of the westernising/modernising kind or of the more fundamentalist Islamic kind, the

Economic and Political Weekly August 19, 2006

question has not been one of democracy versus non-democratic norms, but of “liberalism” against the perceived and variously interpreted Islamic symbols and values. Unlike in the traditional (western?) notion of civil society, the pursuit of democratic ideals is not a necessary and defining condition. Not only is this a fundamental difference, but so too is the necessary distinction of the autonomy from the state, so integral to the meaning of civil society, in theory.

If sections of civil society are expected to challenge the state, in Pakistan many of them are the state’s partners, acquiring mutual benefits of some kind or the other. For instance, development groups which have emerged as a result of government failure in Pakistan and have become contractors in the form of NGOs in their own right, are often co-opted by institutions of the state to become the latter’s “advisors” winning lucrative contracts and getting the publicity they need to further their credentials. Human rights activists and advocacy groups too, become “partners” with other “stakeholders”, particularly the government, and try to redress problems created by the very institutions of the state that they now are partnering. The essence of Pakistan’s politics – very broadly defined

– is one of compromise not confrontation, and of cooptation. Civil society in Pakistan is very much part of that political tradition.

Linked to this relationship with politics and perhaps determining it, is the relationship of civil society more generally and of NGOs, more specifically, with money, particularly donor funding. If, for example, the most prominent and potentially radical civil society organisations in Pakistan receive funding from donors who have specific interests or agendas, the “political-ness” of these organisations gets muted. With the British and American governments amongst the biggest donors of civil society in Pakistan, one does not see, other than among a mere handful, much protest against both governments for their role in the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, these governments are imposing their liberal social agenda on these two countries, an agenda which the westernised sections of Pakistani civil society endorse. Moreover, the requirement that civil society be autonomous of the state also comes undone, since many of these NGOs, while perhaps not dependent on the Pakistani state, are highly dependent on another foreign (donor) state, be it the Norwegian, the British or American state. It is the broader westernised, “liberal”, modern (but in the case of Pakistan, non-democratic) vision, which western governments share with the elite and the westernised sections of those who constitute civil society in Pakistan, which binds them together. Not so the Islamic elements or sections of civil society.

The greatest opposition to the imperial presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and against Israel, has come from the political and non-political section of what one can only call “Islamic” civil society. Unlike their westernised Pakistani cousins, this is, at least in a narrow non-Leninesque sense, an anti-imperialist political grouping, which is also against the agenda of the World Bank, IMF, and against economic liberalism, something that the westernised civil society supports very enthusiastically. For both, however, democracy is less important.

Most definitions of civil society would not stretch themselves (certainly in the western tradition) to include film societies, debating clubs or puppet and theatre festivals. Yet, because these entities have a political and radical cultural presence in the context of an Islamicised (and violently so) society like Pakistan, they can be included in a non-western, specific, context as belonging to civil society. Even such benign civil society organisations seek patronage from the chief of the army staff, who is also the president of Pakistan, to further their cause: some months ago general Musharraf was the chief guest at the inaugural and closing ceremony of a puppet festival and a film festival. While these cultural preferences may be the redeeming feature of Pakistan’s military coup maker, one should not forget that Beethoven and Goethe were claimed as the cultural ancestors of a certain group of Germans not six decades ago.

This close accommodation between civil and uncivil society in Pakistan needs to be seen in the particular context of Pakistan’s cultural, social and political evolution. One is not stating that Pakistan’s experience is in any way unique, but one will argue that perhaps civil society ought to be defined by the conditions in which it exists, so that one can understand its functioning and politics better. While Pakistan’s civil society is an outcome of its particular history and the way its institutions and politics have evolved, it is, nevertheless, essential to apply some minimum acceptable norms of civil society behaviour, to be able to evaluate its role and performance. In the context of Pakistan, one is likely to find that its civil society (its western wing), aspires to only a select few of the necessary requisites which would elsewhere allow it to call itself a “civil society”. For this civil society, a westernised, socially and culturally liberal agenda is far more important and preferable than the messy indigenous politics essential for democracy. In fact, one of the main consequences of this ideology has been the depoliticisation of public life in Pakistan. Under such circumstances, where the main representatives of uncivil society are perceived to be equally westernised and socially and culturally liberal, where civil society actors work for the emancipation of women and for human rights, and where military generals support the same agenda, both civil society and uncivil society make consenting bedfellows.



Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies


Applications are invited from citizens of SAARC countries for a Ford Foundation Visiting Fellowship in any area of the arts, humanities or the social sciences relevant to the study of Islam or the Muslim world.

The Fellowship is tenable at the Centre for ten months from 1 October 2007. Stipend £1000 pcm; housing allowance £700 pcm.

Further details from: The Academic Secretary, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2AR, UK. Fax: 00 44 1865 248942. Email:

Closing date: 15 November 2006

Economic and Political Weekly August 19, 2006

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