Middle East and North Africa Social Policy

Written by Rana Jawad, University of Bath Institute for Policy Research

Topic: Islam

Social policy or religious extremism? - The Case of Isis

📥  Arab World, Islam, Islamic welfare, Middle East and North Africa, religion, Social policy, social protection, social security, Social welfare, Uncategorized

This is the biggest missing link in the media and political debate over the ISIS crisis. Modern Islamist social movements often proclaim that “Islam is the solution” to all the social and political woes of Arab populations. This reflects the fact that under dictatorship, the only viable platform for political protest in the Arab world was Islamic identity; there could be no civil society and no freedom of association; after dictatorship, religious identity was the inevitable fall-back position for political organisation.

The pressing social problems facing Arab and Muslim populations are often overshadowed in Western media coverage by the problem of “political Islam”. Arab countries have some of the highest levels of unemployment in the world; they have not industrialised sufficiently (or at all, in some cases) to develop their workforces' skills and knowledge base.

Worse still, their reliance on rentier income from oil, gas or foreign remittances attached to those industries has lead sluggish economic growth and kept human capital poor.

The motivating thrust of political Islam is a sense of social dislocation, and a search for the identity and independence of the Arab nation. But the convoluted politics and thwarted economics of Arab countries make any such search terribly myopic, even disregarding the ideological extremism of Islamist movements.

For too long, the question of social policy in the Arab countries has been sidelined by raging political disputes, and these states badly need to start using policy to articulate a lost sense of the common good. An essential dimension of this governance reform would require Arab countries renegotiating their place within the wider political economy, and being less hostage to outside political influence of ally states (both within the Middle East and the West) and more receptive to the will of their people.

Until that happens, the reign of terror will prevail.

Obama's short respite?

📥  Chemical weapons, Hizbullah, Islam, Middle East and North Africa, Military action, Obama, Russian proposal, Syria

Obama's short respite?

Dr Rana Jawad, MENA Network Co-ordinator for the University of Bath Institute for Policy Research’s view on BBC report http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-24043751

Syria is not Afghanistan or Iraq or Lebanon. Any military attack on Syria will mean that Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are more than likely to rally around their ally. A stray rocket into Israel, and all hell will break loose. The risks to the region of the Middle East and to the West more generally are tremendous. It is no wonder that President Obama and political leaders in Western Europe and North America have to take seriously any attempt at diffusing the tensions in the Middle East and in particular, military action in Syria. Claims that the international credibility of the UK or the USA have been undermined as a result of the reluctance of leading politicians to take action in Syria are misplaced. If anything, this is one occasion when public opinion in these countries may be seen to have been vindicated with citizens feeling that finding solutions to the economic recession is more of a priority and that international intervention in the Middle East is an endeavour mired in failure and great loss of human life.

But the stakes are also ever higher in Syria because neither side of the civil war is promising enough to bring about a fresh start to political life in this country. On the one hand, the Syrian regime is a dictatorship made up of the Alouite religious minority, and the opposition is made up of an array of factions whose numbers are increasingly swelling with Islamic hardliners who see the fight in Syria as a war in apocalyptic terms. This does not bode well for other religious groups in Syria or its neighbouring countries. And it certainly does not bode well for Western countries against future scenarios similar to 9/11.

Will the Russian plan lead to a final resolution of this issue? It is a short–term step in the direction of no foreign military action for the immediate future - but the ensuing political wrangling, the logistics of gathering the chemical weapons and monitoring their destruction by UN inspectors will be far from simple. Bashar Al Assad has every interest in seeing this proposal through, but he will not be dictated to on the terms of this deal, as for example was suggested by a French Minister yesterday. Indeed, will this Russian deal mean that killing by all other means goes on as normal in Syria? And what if chemical weapons are acquired by other means and other groups? We will be back to square one.

Which leads back to the central issue of Obama’s red line: surely, the issue is about regime change and stopping the civil war in the first place. The red line of chemical weapons seems arbitrary and dehumanising of the lives already lost in Syria.  Chemical weapons have been used before in this region both in the Syrian civil war and in other wars - but no red lines were drawn then. President Obama is in a tough position and this Russian proposal will give him short respite.


You cannot turn a blind eye to a giant: The relevance of religion to social protection and social welfare in the Middle East


📥  Arab World, donor agencies, Hizbullah, Islam, Islamic welfare, Middle East and North Africa, Muslim Bortherhood, religion, Social justice, Social policy, social protection, social security, Social welfare

At long last governments and international development agencies are interested in social welfare and social protection issues in the MENA region (particularly in the Arab and Muslim-populated countries). 10 years ago this was a very different story. No one spoke of the need to protect citizens in the MENA region (except perhaps for the UN Arab Human Development Reports) and government officials did not really know what social policy meant. But since the mid-2000s we have seen an explosion of new terms such as social protection, social security, social assistance, social solidarity, social integration and new welfare mix which headline reports and conference events. But are we any closer towards understanding how social policy systems work in the MENA region, and crucially, what the way forward might be now that the Arab spring has brought issues of social justice and social welfare in MENA to the fore?

I began this piece by looking back to 10 years ago: the aspect of social and political life I have a special interest in, religion and religious social welfare was a much more welcoming environment to researchers back then. It was much less suspicious because few people paid attention to it. Even groups of a political nature with well-established welfare wings such as Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood were much more open to outside researchers coming to see what they did. Iran was a country to which Western researchers could gain an entry visa in reasonable time and through standard application processes.  Today, the situation is considerably different:  the doors to researchers have been shut as Muslim organisations undertaking social welfare work come under heavy scrutiny. To get a visa to Iran these days requires an invitation and a special reference number from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  This is not an anecdotal point – this change in circumstances is crucial for finding a way forward because:

  1. Muslim groups, no matter how notoriously linked they are to armed military struggle have extensive social welfare networks in the countries they operate in which are well-organised and successfully solve the daily social and economic problems that everyday people face.
  2. It is impossible to devise policies that can support social integration and social security in the MENA region without taking into account the place and role of religion and religious groups in society there.

My research over the last decade has extended beyond Muslim groups; I mention the two above because they are part of the fire that feeds the appetite of political and policy debate around the world. I have researched Christian and Druze welfare organisations in the MENA region too and here is the important point.

When we compare the types of services that are provided by religious welfare organisations in the MENA region, regardless of what political affiliation that organisation might have, we find that all of these organisations have a similar social welfare ethos which prioritises vulnerable groups such as orphans, the elderly and female-headed households. Indeed, they all operate on a social assistance basis, be this of an in-kind or in-cash nature. Take the case of Emdad and Caritas in Lebanon for example – Emdad is part of the family of Hezbollah-led welfare associations but it offers social assistance to some of the poorest segments of society which tend to be of the Shi’a denomination. Caritas is also a very prominent welfare and development organisation, linked to CARITAS INTERNATIONALIS, the welfare wing of the Catholic Church – it provides the same kinds of social assistance and family support services as Emdad.  SO WHY IS RELIGION A DIRTY WORD?

Religion is a force that is here to stay with us, in both Eastern and Western hemispheres. Alexis de Toqueville, in his famous travels around America remarked that the roots of Western democracy lay in the hundreds of voluntary religious associations that undertook a whole array of neighbourhood and community work in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those primitive forms of spontaneous social organisation laid the foundations for the more complex modern systems of governance that we have today.

Could we possibly conceive of a situation of similar spontaneous welfare groups with a religious character in the MENA region today?

In the Western world, we have come to terms with the role of religion in public life and we accept that the welfare state was part conceived by the established Churches in the aftermath of the Second World War. Prominent sociologists in North America and Europe such as Jurgen Habermas, Robert Bellah, Robert Putnam and even at one time Anthony Giddens, have been ready to pay homage to religion as a civic force which helps to promote community ties and social support networks. Yet, in the MENA region, we are increasingly facing a dominant discourse of religion, and Islam in particular, as a regressive, conservative and dictatorial force.  Why is this so and how can social science research add insights?

Governments and global development agencies will do well in the formulation of new social protection and social welfare policies, if they take serious account of the experience of religious organisations in social welfare provision. But beyond this, religion also informs the salient moral values which underpin particular conceptualisations of the good society in the MENA region. As an example, the family remains central in religious thinking on welfare – what we find in MENA countries is that both state agencies and religious organisations target services to vulnerable groups such as orphans or female-headed households because they have no male- bread winner. Indeed, welfare benefits to support able-bodied unemployed men in the MENA countries (save for example Turkey, Israel and more recently Bahrain and Jordan) do not exist.

So for policy purposes we can only understand patterns of social welfare organisation in the MENA region by making the link to religion – for better, or worse, this is a force that the MENA region should not be ashamed of but should enter into dialogue with. To a certain extent, the sense in this argument is obvious: you cannot turn a blind eye to a giant.