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Citizenship:The Lawful Membership of a Democratic Civic Society
Krim [ PM ]
4 August 2006 13:36

The Lawful Membership of a Democratic Civic Society

Mohammad Abd al‑Jabbar al‑Shabutt*


Democracy and citizenship are interdependent and should not be separated, since the absence of one causes the other to dysfunction. There is no democracy without citizenship, and no citizenship without democracy. If democracy comprises the distribution of political power and the management of a country and its society on the basis of choices made by the general public, then citizenship is the conscious lawful membership of that society with its inherent responsibilities, on which is structured the relationship between the citizen and the state. In this context, the “state” means not only the government, but also all the institutions of a state, including the geographical location of the country, its groups of people and its political authority. This definition is based on the primary interpretation of citizenship as “interaction”, which is assumed to take place among a network of participants. Thus, citizenship is far removed from the narrow self-centredness of individualism. Moreover, democracy relies on the concept of the popular vote. There are no people without citizens, and no government of and by individuals without the existence of citizens in the first place. The government and the limits of its power are under the control of its citizens. If the citizens are stripped of their power by the removal of the principle of citizenship, then there will be no one to monitor and regulate the implementation of authority and thus democracy no longer exists.

Individuals are not born citizens but free persons. Citizenship is acquired, not adopted as a habit, as is argued by the Arab thinker, Qistantin Rizq. It does not happen by coincidence and chance, nor is it offered by an external source. It is acquired like the other values of life. Its degree, again, depends on the amount of effort that one is willing to make to acquire its values. Not everyone is a citizen. If we are not born citizens, then what makes us citizens and how do we acquire citizenship? An individual is a biological being, which, at the primitive level, does not share a social bond with any other human. It is the human being that God created first, and that will return to Him at the end of a journey, as the Holy Qur’an describes: “And certainly you have come to Us alone as We created you at first” (6:94). Nevertheless, no human being is completely isolated from others. The stories Hai ibn Yaqdhān by Ibn Tufail and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe are no more than figments of the imagination. At least, human beings are born with parents, although during the first few months of life, they are no more than biological beings that have no social relationships. Later, their social relationships develop and multiply, beginning with attachments to parents, siblings and then relatives. Finally, the children move beyond the household and form relationships with neighbours as well as with other children and adults at school. In this way, the citizenship of individuals forms and develops, and it can be measured by the amount of social interaction and the extent of the network. This process eventually creates a relationship with the state, based on full awareness and its expression, which can now be defined as citizenship.
Dictatorship Conflicts with Citizenship

The higher one’s level of citizenship, the greater one’s influence. When this principle is applied to a group of people, they will gain more power. The power gained can be used to struggle against the government, or, at least, to create a barrier between the government and its citizens to prevent the former from dominating and oppressing the latter. That is why the first action taken by a dictator is to strip the rights of citizenship from the citizens and to concentrate on individualism by provoking divisions among groups of people into sub-groups and even disinterested individuals. A dictator will attempt to narrow the vision of individuals to the level of their basic daily needs and so distract them from seeking a solution to end the corruption within the various institutions of the government. The same idea is expressed in the story of Pharaoh, as narrated in the Qur’an: “Surely Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and divided its people into groups, weakening one of those groups; he slaughtered their sons and abused their women” (28:4). The dictatorship in Iraq used similar tactics to dominate and exploit its citizens by stripping them of their rights of citizenship, distracting them with individual personal concerns and isolating them from social connections. In addition, the Iraqi regime attempted to prevent the formation of any civic society that would promote the development of citizenship.

The construction of a democracy requires another process for developing citizenship, that is, to change a disinterested individual into a citizen, a quality that, as mentioned earlier, is acquired rather than innate. The transformation needs to be based on three criteria:

1. consciousness based on political knowledge;

2. commitment to the conditions of citizenship;

3. voluntarism.

Consciousness is the awareness of self and one’s environment, followed by one’s behaviour that results in reaction to this awareness. Citizenship is the consciousness of belonging to a particular group of people, resident in a named geographical location, ruled by a government supported by its people and the political party in power. It is the conscious wish to transform oneself from the individual sphere into the feeling of belonging and the readiness to accept the necessary responsibility, and the inherent rights and duties connecting oneself to other citizens.

This consciousness is not created from a void; rather, it is the consequence of the political education of the citizens, practised within individual households, schools and society. The continuation of citizenship from one generation to the next also ensures the continuation of the political education of citizens. As the conscious self is educated in political citizenship, so it is prepared to make the move from the enclosed sphere of childhood individualism to the open and welcoming sphere of adult citizenship.

When individuals are unable to comprehend the political education in citizenship and therefore cannot put it into practice, they simply cannot improve and move towards effective citizenship. Those who do not have the will to become effective citizens are likely to indulge in every kind of corruption, crime and debauchery of which the human being is capable. Indeed, the Qur’an highlights this point: “the soul and One Who perfected it, then He inspired it to understand what is right and wrong; he who purifies it will be successful, and indeed, he who corrupts it will fail” (91:7–10). Giving charity in this sense is one way of developing the consciousness of citizenship. The word “corrupt” in the Qur’anic verse refers to abusing this education in citizenship consciousness. Corruption in financial affairs and administration, misuse of public law, and neglect of public duties are all examples of society’s failure to produce effective citizens.

Citizenship, as mentioned earlier, is based on interaction. It is a network of relationships between one individual and other individuals, between individuals and society, and between the individual and the state. It is from these relationships and networks, based on negotiation and give and take, that individuals develop into citizens. The quality of these relationships depends primarily on the commitment to the negotiations. This is precisely what is meant by rights and duties. The duties are what one offers to the relationship that one values most and the rights are what one receives in return. In short, the duties are the price of one’s rights. This is the second constituent of citizenship, that is, the definite feeling of responsibility. Historically, this system developed gradually. Now, it has reached the stage of a universal charter containing many detailed clauses, which is part of a nation’s constitution. The charter reminds citizens of their rights and duties. However, there is no point in compiling a charter if its contents are not put into practice. Written laws cannot be practised and become a reality unless two different sides attempt to implement them. Both the rulers, who have the resources and the power to implement laws, and the members of the public, who are effective citizens, play a crucial role to transform these laws into a living reality. Rulers might attempt to impose duties on their citizens without in return presenting them with their rights, and citizens might prefer to accept only their rights while neglecting their duties. Discrepancies of this kind are common and the responsibility should be shared between both parties. However, the aware­ness and deep-rootedness of consciousness within society are factors that will reduce the like­lihood of these discrepancies.

Voluntarism is the highest level of citizenship and indicates an individual’s full effectiveness. The kind of citizenship established by different regimes is usually coercive rather than mutually advantageous, since it is not based on a balance between rights and duties. The citizenship that is based on voluntarism requires citizens who are free. Voluntarism is the personal readiness of citi­zens to serve society without the expectation of a financial/material reward, a fact frequently mentioned in the Qur’an, for example, “hasten to [perform] virtuous deeds” (5:48) and “whoever does good spontaneously, then surely God is Grateful and Knowing” (2:158). This high level of citizenship is the basis of a civil society, where citizens are bonded by voluntary work that is beyond government interference[1]. These voluntary ties are known as the institu­tions of civil society. The activity of citizens is measured by the amount of voluntary work that they perform. The strength of a society, as opposed to governmental dominance, is measured according to how far the institutions of civil society can protect themselves and maintain relative independence from the executive authority. Therefore, the activity of effective citizens becomes one of the most important conditions for the establishment of democracy in a society. Dictators know this formula and so can be observed physically preventing the establishment of these civil institutions or creating bogus institutions with similar names as tools to dominate society.
Freedom and Equality

The transformation of the biological human being into an effective citizen, who is consciously responsible, depends on two factors:

1. Freedom

Citizenship is a voluntary activity, which means that one needs to be a free individual to make decisions. The quest for freedom is based not only on the rejection of the domi­nance by another authority, but also on the acceptance of responsibility. There is no responsibility without freedom. If citizenship depends on responsibility, then indivi­duals must be initially free. Contemporary constitutions and Human Rights laws des­cribe the structure of the freedom that needs to be preserved for every human being. Probably the most important of these regulations is the freedom of speech, detailed in Article 19 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The freedom of speech requires that there is an unrestricted flow of information and that citizens have the right to access that information. This also means that uneducated and ignorant people cannot become effective citizens. The freedom to acquire knowledge is the starting-point for becoming a citizen. It is not a coincidence that the first verse of the Qur’an to be revealed begins with the word “Iqrā’!” or “Read!”, which, to an illiterate society, is a command rather than a right.

2. Equality

Citizenship is meaningless without equality among citizens. There should be no dis­crimi­nation based on gender, religion, colour or ethnic group. Indeed, applicants for employment should be judged purely on merit. Islam is a religion that gives priority to dealing with others on the basis of equality and justice. The Prophet (pbuh) said:

O people, your father is the same and your mother is the same. All of you are from Adam and Adam was from the soil. There is no superiority of an Arab to a non-Arab, nor of a non-Arab to an Arab, nor of a Red to a Black, nor of a Black to a Red, except in piety.

In this context, piety means merit, which should be the deciding factor for those seeking political leadership, general employment and any position in authority.
Participation and a Life of Dignity

Finally, citizenship is meaningless unless citizens enjoy two rights: participation in govern­ment and a life of dignity. There is no point in transforming individuals into effective citizens if they are not also given the opportunity to play a full role in governing the country. Political participation is at the heart of democracy. It is in this sense that democracy is inherently linked to citizenship. Thus political participation and the public expression of opinion are mani­fested during free and fair elections to choose suitable leaders and representative Members of Parliament. Political participation is not a favour offered by the government, but the right of citizens, since the origins of government is for and by the people. The leader chosen is none other than a representative of his/her people. In addition, the minimum require­ments for living a dignified life allow individuals to be effective citizens. These requirements comprise the rights of security, residence, health care, education and financial resources. There is a correlation between providing these minimum requirements and political participation. The more carefully the citizens’ rights are preserved, the greater the citizens’ wish to participate in politics. Indeed, as field studies have shown, it is difficult to imagine effective citizens without the provision of these minimum five requirements.

*Mohammad Abd al‑Jabbar al‑Shabutt: the Editor-in-Chief(till very recently) of the leading daily newspaper, al‑Sabah, in Baghdad, Iraq.


Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 08/04/2006 02:05 by Krim.
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