Mohib Ebrahim: We tend to think of civil society as something that engages with society at large, working in co-operation with governments. However, I think this view is far too narrow and limiting: I view civil society as the constituents of a community applying themselves to address their needs instead of waiting for the existing bodies or institutions — whether governments or, in our case, community institutions — to address them. In other words, I see a continuum of civil society layers, if you will, in which new grassroot layers continuously arise in reaction to new needs when existing, higher ranks face capacity constraints or the new needs are outside of their mandates or priorities. As Hazar Imam has said:
“The role of civil society is to complement government efforts, not compete with them.”
And so to me civil society is about the citizenry having the will and the confidence to step up to the plate and take action when it is clear something needs to be addressed.
Consider, for example, our own institutions, not just the AKDN institutions, but also our various community boards and councils, from a local library committee right upto the LIF. From Hazar Imam’s vision of civil society, as I understand it, these are all civil society institutions. Some, like our schools and hospitals, arose over a hundred years ago, in East Africa and elsewhere, in response to needs we faced as a community but which were not adequately met by existing national institutions. Others, like our community boards and councils, help and offer the infrastructure to enable us to organise ourselves so we can help ourselves. However, like all institutions, as ours matured they were tasked with specific mandates and became unavoidably bureaucratic to some extent — this is not a criticism but just the reality of institutions as they grow. And, in particular, they develop inevitable capacity constraints. When institutions reach this level of maturity, they automatically become less responsive to new needs due to their own inertia and that is when the opportunity arises for the constituents of the community to forge a new, grassroots layer of civil society to address those unmet needs.
Interviewer: And that’s when the people can step in?
Mohib Ebrahim: Exactly. However, there is a very crucial underpinning to this layering process, without which it risks degenerating into a free-for-all: It is essential and necessary that a relationship of mutual recognition exists between a civil society organisation and the layer above it. To me the nature of this relationship is best characterised by what I call “co-operative autonomy.”
What I mean by this, is that for a civil society organisation to work creatively and efficiently it needs to be autonomous from the organisation or institution with jurisdiction over it but, at the same time, it must work in co-operation with that higher authority to maintain order. So for example, AKDN institutions are autonomous yet work in co-operation with the governments under whose jurisdictions they fall. Similarly, when we engage in new private Ismaili initiatives outside of our community institutions, and create the next layer of civil society, we need to work in co-operation with our institutions. As in all partnerships, such co-operation necessarily requires mutual compromises and a mutual spirit of good-faith, respect and reasonableness. We all are aware of Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s advices about the importance of compromise as a means to bridge differences and move forward.
Interviewer: Do you think our community institutions hold these notions?
Mohib Ebrahim: Yes I think they do, although perhaps not all to the same degree. Mawlana Hazar Imam has spoken of the Enabling Environment which governments must foster in order to encourage private initiative, stating in particular that:
“What a sound Enabling Environment must do is to create a favourable framework in which human creativity can flourish (emphasis added).”
To me this extends across all the layers civil society — each layer of authority must create an Enabling Environment for the layer below it, only then can the creative spirit and energy of a community’s constituents be unleashed without reservation and anxiety. Indeed Hazar Imam said as much in 1981:
“Man is an extraordinary creature, a creation, and that assisting him to become creative, productive within his national context, is the most productive thing an institution can do (emphasis added).”
I think the same applies directly to a person’s communal context too and the community institutions which serve him must similarly foster Enabling Environments so creative, private initiative within that community can flourish. [Click here for Hazar Imam’s quotes on the issue of instiutions, creativity, and Enabling Environments.] In fact in Gilgit, in November 1987, Hazar Imam specifically said his wish was for our Constitution to become an “enabling document” for the community. His choice of words at that time is noteworthy because remember he first coined the term “Enabling Environment” in 1982 and in 1986 convened the first Enabling Environment Conference in Nairobi. I didn’t understand then what he meant by the Constitution being an “enabling document”, but now I think I do. And by the way, this is a perfect example of how I find the speeches and farmans complement each other and help us understand both better.
I am committed to the two facets of the “co-operative autonomy” relationship because I am convinced of its validity. Without autonomy creativity and capacity are hamstrung and without co-operation communal order, cohesion, strength and unity are compromised, but when the two are combined — with intelligence, mutual good faith and reasonableness — progress can be very, very rapid. As I said before, it is self-evident the institutions can’t do everything and large, monolithic structures are not the future. In 2006 at AKU, Hazar Imam said:
“A vast decentralisation of decision-making is already occurring in many countries; it has the advantage of placing new responsibilities in the hands of local communities…. For the key to future progress will lie less in traditional top-down systems of command and control — and more in a broad, bottom-up spirit of coordination and co-operation…. Social progress, in the long run, will not be found by delegating an all-dominant role to any one player — but rather through multi-sector partnerships.”
I believe these observations by Hazar Imam are as valid and applicable within the context of our community as they are to the national contexts he was commenting on. No matter what their context, whether national or communal, people’s needs are the same and so institutional responsibilities are the same.
It is in all these spirits that the NanoWisdoms Archive project was conceived and operates and I believe the permission granted to it by Aiglemont is a tangible confirmation of their similar conviction to all these principles and in particular of encouraging private initiative within the community.
Interviewer: So you think more such private initiatives should be done?
Mohib Ebrahim: Absolutely. I believe that private initiatives outside of the institutional framework — like Nano, your website [Amaana], Simerg, Ismaili Mail, Ashifa Asaria-Lalani’s photography competition project (which by the way has the benefit of institutional support and also of theismaili.org, no doubt giving her book and website immense exposure) — are the logical extension of the decentralisation process, Hazar Imam spoke of, to the intra-community space. I think those communities of people, whether religious, cultural, social, or professional, which embrace this decentralisation will, in the future, be the healthier, more vibrant, richer and most progressive communities because they will tap into and leverage the full spectrum of resources and talents of their community rather than limiting themselves to just what can be done through their community’s institutional efforts or auspices.
My father used to quote a farman Hazar Imam made in 1959 in
TanzaniaKenya where he said that there just aren’t enough openings within the institutions for hundreds of volunteers, and that in the long run the jamat can do a lot more, if we really set our minds to it, outside the institutions than inside by simply reacting intelligently and conservatively to changes and using our education to move forward and support the institutions. Although the term “civil society” was not in vogue then, what Hazar Imam said is a call for the citizenry of our community to step up to the plate and address unmet needs but always working in cooperation with the institutions, that is, within what I call the co-operative autonomy framework. I find what Hazar Imam said over 50 years ago as relevant, if not more so, today given the increasing capacity constraints our institutions face and, particularly, today’s breakneck pace of life.
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About Mohib Ebrahim
Mohib Ebrahim is the Editor and Publisher of the NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat Speeches, Interviews and Writings. An honours graduate of Simon Fraser University in Computer Science and Mathematics, Mohib has been involved in software development and the IT industry since the ’80s. His religious interests lie in understanding the intersection of faith and reason: validation of faith and the nature of truth.
Image: Mohib Ebrahim (With permission)