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Building Civil Society in Ethno-Religiously Fractured Communities

Mehmet Kalyoncu


Civil society is generally associated with the presence of voluntary civic and social organizations that function as the basis of a given community. Run by the informed citizens or the groups, these non-governmental organizations assume responsibility of monitoring governmental organizations and mobilize the available resources to maintain order and efficiencyin functioning of not only the governmental organizations but also of the society in general.

According to Alexis Tocqueville, the civic organization, or the ability of the citizens to organize through associations for common purpose, constitutes the basis of civil society. Critique of the American individualism, Tocqueville suggested that coming around common causes would create a civic consciousness for American nationhood which is far more important than fulfilling selfish individual desires.1 Moreover, Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba found a direct correlation between civil society and democracy arguing that political civil society organizations increase civic awareness which respectively generate informed voting choices, participation in politics and holding the government more accountable.

Along the similar lines with Almond and Verba, Robert Putnam argues that not only political but also non-political civil society organizations are crucial to democracy because they build social capital, trust and shared values, which are transferred into political sphere and help to hold society together, facilitating an understanding of the interconnectedness of society and interests within it.3 What is common of all four students of civil society is their conviction that the coming together of citizens within either political or non-political organizations for a common purpose is crucial to achieve a full functioning civil society and as such a healthy democracy.

They all compare the merits of civic organization over its absence in terms of achieving a stable and functioning democracy. What if the community does not have ability to organize at the first place? What if there are ongoing intra-communal conflicts stemming from deeply entrenched ethno-religious differences? How is it possible to convince the different ethno-religious groups within a community to come together around a common cause as Tocqueville suggests, which would eventually generate a common identity and as Almond, Verba and Putnam suggests, a functioning democracy? The very reality that the contemporary societies still suffer from ethno-religious conflicts makes it imperative for the students of civil society to reformulate their strategies to attain civil society in ethno-religiously fractured communities where what divides different segments of the community is mote than what united them.

I argue that it is possible to develop common practical methods to foster civil society and democracy in communities that are traditionally divided along the ethno-religious fault lines and have been experiencing conflict over those ethno-religious differences. My earlier field research in the city of Mardin, which is located on the Syrian border of Turkey and populated by ethnic Turks, Arabs, Kurds and well as Assyrian Christians, about the Gulen Movement" href="">Gülen movement, a faith-based civil society movement, suggests that it is likely to develop common strategies to bring together different ethno-religious groups within a community to organize toward achieving civil society. Addressing the common problems facing the different ethno-religious communities within a given society, providing solid services to eradicate those problems, and seeking collaboration of those ethno-religious communities along the way constitute the crux of mobilizing social potential which is possible to channel to adopting a civil society’s values and practices.

A Glance at the Gülen Movement in Southeast Turkey

The Gülen movement has been able to mobilize Turks, Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrian Christians in Mardin to cooperate on tackling their common problems. The city has been heavily affected by the ensuing insecurity, infrastructural and economic deprivations due to the conflicts between the Turkish security forces and the terrorist organizations such as the Marxist PKK and the Islamist fundamentalist Hezbollah respectively since early 1980s and 1990s.
The ongoing conflicts and insecurity have not only deprived the city of basic infrastructures, investments and educational facilities, but also deepened the ethnic fault-lines, less so the religious ones.

Against this background, the affiliates of the Gülen movement first established personal contacts with the local people from different ethnic groups in the late 1980s. Their conversations focused on such common problems facing all groups regardless of their ethno-religious allegiance as the lack of education of the youth, increasing unemployment, the consequential falling prey of the youth to either PKK or Hezbollah, and ensuing problem of terrorism and economic deprivations. The movement has not only preached about these issues but also mobilized the local people to tackle these problems together. The local people’s cooperation seems to have yielded tangible outcomes which has changed the earlier attitudes and practices of the ethno-religious groups in Mardin, thereby preparing the ground for fostering participative civil society. These tangible outcomes include educational and cultural institutions which continue to build the human capital for a stable and democratic Mardin.

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abe says:

What an informative and detailed article. It's not a product of some theoretical social science, but a real meticulous exhaustive work.

This is something against what Joubert says in Three Days of Condor;

Joe Turner: Why?
Joubert: I don't interest myself in "why". I think more often in terms of "when", sometimes "where"; always "how much".

This article is asking the avoided "Why?" question.
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