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On Civil Society

Saturday, 10 February 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

B. Herry-Priyono, an Indonesian scholar, writes this extremely interesting article in The Jakarta Post, scrutinising what is prevailed as ‘civil society’, especially in the current context of Indonesia. Intellectually inspiring, and provoking. Enjoy!

The Jakarta Post, 10 February 2007 – Indonesia Outlook 2007 – Political

Is religious extremism part of Indonesia’s civil society?

B. Herry-Priyono

The answer is no, and it is a big NO. The reasons are twofold; one concerns the issue of power, the other the issue of civility. Let’s begin with the former. The term “civil society” has a long pedigree and it was initially a term of ancient jurisprudence. The classical notion of “civil society” is more or less a direct translation of what Aristotle, that Greek philosopher, referred to as koin“nia politik‚, or political community. It was Cicero, the great Roman orator, who appropriated the term and subsequently called it societas civilis, the Latin term for civil society.

Civil society was coterminous with political community in the sense that social life organized in a polity is in sharp contrast to the uncivilized state under the law of the jungle. So, political community characterized by civility was set in contrast to the uncivilized life and barbarous condition under nature. In the seventeenth century, for instance, Thomas Hobbes, the author of Leviathan, used the term precisely to refer to a state of social order that is the opposite of “the state of nature”. Civil society is a condition in which human persons live in a state of social contract, of which a polity and government form an integral part.

Why in contrast to nature? The answer is plain. It’s because the whim of nature was seen as the greatest threat to life, both in terms of physical hazards and of the capricious working of the law of the jungle in moral life. In this condition, writes Hobbes, there is “no arts, no letters, no society”, and human life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. In sum, the blind menace of nature and the law of the jungle were seen as dangerous forces that had to be mitigated. Civil society is a way of controlling them. In the words of Adam Ferguson, the author of The History of Civil Society, it is a society of less barbarous manners, a society which practiced the cultivation of the mind by arts and letters.

The human mind is blessed with a capacity to create and recreate ideas, and the shifting historical context has served as an impetus to the ensuing notions of civil society. It was within the context of the struggle against the whim of monarchical powers that the antithetical notion of civil society vis-a-vis the state began to develop. What used to be the menace of nature was merely replaced by the caprice of political rulers.

This is not the place to trace the genealogy of the term. What is relevant is that the meaning of civil society as widely used today is derived from the historic events surrounding the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. I still remember that before 1989, the term “civil society” was rarely used. Thereafter, it became the sweetest word. The problem is, the currency of “civil society” also involves amnesia of its genesis. That is, its popular use goes hand in hand with obliviousness as to its meaning.

In Eastern European societies, the term was used as the antithesis of politburo — that is, government — precisely because the politburo was seen as the most capricious power in these societies. Between the politburo’s state apparatus and individual families, there were hardly any free organizations with independent voices, be they media, religious or other organizations. It was out of this contextual necessity that the struggle of so-called civil society was then directed against the politburo apparatus.

Of course, the trajectory of the term is not as neat as presented in this sketch. It is clear, however, that civil society is viewed in terms of its opposition to the state, not because it is logically so, but because in Eastern Europe prior to the 1989 upheavals, the politburo state was seen as the ultimate power holder, the concentration of which had posed the greatest threat to the civility of social life. What seems fundamental is that civil society is a societal network of democratic energies intended to make the exercise of power accountable, be it state or business power, or religious or media power.

If such power takes the form of business power — like that of Lapindo Brantas, which has brought colossal misery to the East Java town of Sidoarjo — civil society cannot but be directed to making that company publicly accountable. From the point of view of the civil society movement, the reason for making the company publicly accountable is not simply because it has caused misery, but because the colossal misery brought about by the company’s unaccountable exercise of power has destroyed civilized life in Sidoarjo.

The issue of civility is of paramount importance to the idea of civil society. From the moment of its inception, civil society has been at its core concerned with the creation of civility rather than with the power-balance game in democracy. Even the adjective “civil” in civil society has nothing to do with the notion of its antithesis to the term “military”, as widely understood in Indonesia (cf. sipil vs militer). Rather, at the heart of the word “civil” is a contrast with the barbarous manners and conditions of life under the law of the jungle. If it is the military that makes our lives uncivilized, civil society cannot but be against the misconduct of military forces. If it is corporate powers that make our lives uncivilized, civil society cannot but fight against such corporate powers. The same is also true when it is religious powers that make our lives uncivilized.

But, what is civility? It means respect for others, moderation, self-restraint, courtesy, public politeness, good manners, well-spokenness and “gentlemanliness”. Civility is about treating others as fellow citizens of equal dignity in their rights and obligations, about regarding other persons, including one’s adversaries, as members of the same society, even though they belong to different parties or to different religious or ethnic groups. The rule of law is central, but in the end it is in the service of civility, and not of some barbarous manners of imposing sectarian purposes on the pluralistic character of Indonesian society. A dictatorship of the majority that runs counter to civility has nothing to do with either democracy or civil society. It is sheer barbarity.

This vista is highly relevant to the tidal wave of religious extremism currently tearing down the social fabric of Indonesian society. These religious extremists always claim that what they do is part of the civil society movement. But if indeed they are part of civil society, surely they will not, at their whim, break into the houses of worship that belong to different religious groups and proscribe religious services. The fact that they do so is anathema to the civility that is the goal of every civil society movement. Again, in shattering the social fabric of Indonesian society, these religious bigots have recently used many regional legislative councils to impose their will upon us through religion-based ordinances. This alarming trend is likely to continue next year.

This example can be extended further, and we should be alert to the tidal wave of religious bigotry that looms like a raging monster devouring the possibility of building a civilized life. It is troubling to see that these religious bigots are insistent on using the name “civil society” to justify their vicious causes. Of course, this could simply be part of their ruthless tactics to dignify their exploits. But in many respects, it is also due to the poverty of the existing notion of civil society widely prevailing in this country, a notion that is so easily hijacked by religious zealots. Once the issue of civility is taken into account, it is plain to be seen that what these religious extremist groups do has never been, is not and will never be part of the civil society movement.

Indeed, the term was once used as a conceptual weapon against the caprices of the Soeharto regime, quite like the way it was used against the politburo regimes in Eastern Europe. In short, it was the “civil society-versus-the state” meaning that has since then become frozen as a fixed notion. It is this notion of civil society that is now so deficient in dealing with the vicious exploits of these religious zealots, who, by strict definition, are not part of the state institutions. It is also this notion that is so easily hijacked by these bigots.

The tidal wave of religious extremism in this country shows that democracy is not only endangered by the unaccountable exercise of state power, but also by the vicious exploits of religious powers as much as by the gross malpractice of business powers, such as in the case of Lapindo Brantas. Indeed, far from being part of civil society, these religious extremists are the enemies of civil society. It is the duty of any movement worthy of the name “civil society” to confront this form of religious tribalism.

To conceive civil society as a societal network of democratic energies vis-a-vis any form of power abuse and incivility is more fruitful than the notion currently in widespread use in this country. For, in the end, the purpose of civil society is not only to make the exercise of power publicly accountable, but, more fundamentally, to nurture the growth of a shared life that is civil, civic, non-sectarian, tolerant and compassionate. Surely religious bigots are the nemesis of such a civilized society.

The writer, a lecturer in the Postgraduate Program at the Driyarkara School of Philosophy, Jakarta, holds a PhD from the London School of Economics.

  1. Monday, 2 September 2013 at 9:49 pm

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