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The Controversy of the Civil State and Secularism in Yemen (1)

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

With the start of the Arab Spring revolutions came slogans calling for the establishment of ‘the civil state’. Yemen, as one of the Arab Spring countries, saw similar, and perhaps more pressing, calls for a civil state. The protesters would gather in the square and chant slogans, as well as discuss and debate the topic. But despite the concept of the civil state being well received by the majority of the revolutionaries, the details and implications of the concept remained vague to them. What gave it the most value, however, was its adoption by two opposing intellectual groups that conflicted over the notion of the state, namely the Islamic party and the secular party. Perhaps the two parties found in this new concept a thing that united them in their revolution against a common opponent they sought to overthrow. So they put aside their old names and slogans, which perhaps still carried a negative weight mixing truth with falsehood leading each party to reject the other’s slogans and messages. This is how ‘civil’ was then used, as a way to bring the two parties closer, especially as it was a critical time for both parties, requiring them to unite to bring down a regime they both saw as corrupt, tyrannical and, above all, hereditary – an extension of the previous regime.

The ‘civil state’ slogan was suitable by both parties. When I speak of the Islamic party I am talking about a branch in the Islah party that can be considered the party’s enlightenment wing. The speeches made by branch representatives during the revolution carried the voice of this branch over that of the party, which they criticized for still clinging to their previous positions in the ‘Islamic State’. That enlightened wing has been one of the fruits of the Islamic renewal intellectual movement for decades; this was aided by the rapprochement of the Joint Meeting Parties in Yemen, which brought together the Islamic party with its various doctrines (Islah, al-Haq, and the Union of Popular Forces) and the secular party in its various forms (socialist, Nasserite, Baath). This rapprochement resulted in a deliberate, and somewhat converging, interaction that emerged at the height of Yemen’s Arab Spring.

Artwork by Ghaida’a Abdullatif

Transcending ideological rhetoric

A prominent feature of the two sides’ speeches throughout 2011 and 2012 was talk of the hopes and goals of the revolutionaries in the civil state and trying to convince as many people as possible to adopt them. And in 2013 and 2014, and with the stability that came after taking power from the previous regime, a new consensus began to form, converging most Yemeni parties. Its most significant feature was that it was formed by youths unbound by the shackles of past grudges and hatred, and freed from past ideological rhetoric that had created a wall between parties and expanded the gap between them. These youths believe in the possibility of adopting a new discourse that creates coexistence and peace among members of society, with each team, party or movement maintaining its own references and perceptions, but which would not weaken the common ground they share. We used to attend seminars and gatherings that brought together guests from different parties – Islamic, leftist and nationalist – to engage in a balanced debate that looked to a civil state that would please everyone.

From civil to secular

With the end of 2014 and the coup that took place, a religious group (who never formed a political party) seized power claiming a divine right to it, thereby assaulting all civil values. It was then that a secular discourse began to grow calling for the establishment of an explicitly secular state as a response to that religious group. So the term ‘civil’ was set aside and the civil state was considered the same as a secular state. The Islamic party, on the other hand, identified differences between the two terms. They saw that the term ‘civil’ was attached to our context and problems from the term ‘secularism’ which emerged within a Western context with its problems and conflicts. And there the debate and controversy began to escalate and various groups took different paths. Social media was the most prominent platform during that time, so virtual groups formed to bring together people with similar visions, whether these visions were perceived by open-minded Islamist youths or by secular youths. Bigoted voices stood out on both sides that rejected one another just because of the other’s affiliation or choices. They were not widely received, however, and their influence remained limited.

There was also growing controversy about problematic details in the concepts of ‘civil’ and ‘secularism’. So what does each concept mean? What are their historical contexts, what is the reality of the previous connotations each concept carried, and what is the relationship of secularism to atheism, to democracy, to science? Is there anything in Islamic thought that opposes civic values? ​​Were past Arab countries secular or not, and can secularism be authoritarian at the same time? Why is there less talk of democracy today? How can there be a separation between religion and state, and why do we see some secular states appearing to be religious? For six years Yemen’s youths debated these questions and many others; some have been flexible while others more rigid in their propositions. They have yet to establish a common ground solid enough for all groups and parties to coexist on, and the reason for this is the introduction of new elements that encourage exclusionary rhetoric. One of the most important elements was the media’s reporting of the counter-revolution in the Arab world, which highlighted and supported a sharp secular rhetoric against any Islamist, even if it were a moderate Islamist who advocated democracy. And as a response, the extremist Islamic voices resurfaced, both Shiite and Sunni. For, with the return of the Imamate project in the hands of the anti-government Shiite group, the extremist Sunni voice returned calling for the enforcement of Shari’a law.

But these discussions were able to bring closer the views of many moderates who believe in compromising for the sake of reaching a common point that everyone can agree on, while maintaining their identities and representation of their state.

Artwork by Ghaida’a Abdullatif

Conceptual boundaries

I will try to summarize the controversy surrounding these questions. I am biased in favour of what I see as the best points in every problematic issue and controversy, and what I view as closer to narrowing the gap and reducing the conflict between different parties and groups. I will rely in my arguments on an extensive study of these concepts, from the literature of both Western and Islamic political thought.

The first debate concerns the term ‘civil state’. What is meant by it? Some have said that the civil state in the political context is the same as a secular state, for it separates religious institutions from the state, and it is the opposite of the theocratic religious state ruled by the clerics. The secular group argues that the word ‘civil’ came to be as an antonym for religious priesthood. Others, like the Islamist group, argue that the civil state is a contrast to the military state, for the civil state is ruled by civilians chosen by the people and not by army leaders who came to power following coups. Another group of Islamists argue that it is the Islamist state in its original true form, which was in the era of the Message and represented by the Charter of Medina, which absorbed non-Muslims. Some define a civil state as a liberal state that focuses on the freedoms and rights of individual citizens, while others define it as a national state in which citizens are equal before the law.

When we return in our study to the term ‘civil’ as it was employed in Western and non-Western political literature, we find no connection to the concept of the state, according to some researchers, except in limited cases and with different meanings. For example, the Romans used ‘civil law’ to judge Roman citizens, and what was called ‘the law of the people’ to judge non-citizens. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his writings about the terms ‘civil authority’ and ‘civil sovereignty’, explains that what he means by these terms is an authority outside the authority of the Christian church. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau mentions ‘the civil status’ in the ‘social contract’ as a stage in which a person follows the concept of justice in a more sophisticated way than the ‘natural state’ that is guided by human instinct. And the German philosopher, Hegel, writes about the ‘civil service’ that controls public affairs through the bureaucratic part of the state, separate from what he called ‘civil society’.[i]

Then came John Rawls, the American philosopher, who expanded Rousseau’s concept of ‘civil status’ and put forward a new theory of social justice. He developed his theory in terms of the social contract, starting from a hypothesis in which people are in what he called the ‘natural state’, a state in which individuals do not belong to a society, obscured by what he called “the curtain of ignorance” from knowing themselves, from seeing their prejudices and their relationships. And thus, they are kept from the ways in which they could benefit from public order, not even having knowledge of their true level of intelligence, wealth or abilities. Rawls believes that people in this normal hypothetical state need a society in which they can enjoy their essential liberties and certain economic guarantees. Then a modern state must be built from this point through a social contract between individuals, with fundamental principles presented as the basis for this contract, such as freedom, cooperation, equality, self-respect and respect for individual property and others. He states that these principles must be accepted by everyone in order for them to form the basis of modern societies and for us to rebuild society anew on the basis of a just social contract. Although this natural state cannot be achieved in reality, Rawls’s concept of social justice and its link to freedom, equality and equal opportunity has impacted the philosophy of political thought in the 20th century, regardless of whether people agree or disagree with him.[ii]

At the same time, political literature talks about ‘civil society’, which is a concept different from the concept of the ‘civil state’. And even if it does not differ from its spirit, the term civil society points to the broad group of non-governmental and non-profit organizations that have a presence in public life and bear the burden of expressing the interests and values ​​of their members as well as others they represent, based on moral, cultural, political, scientific, religious or charitable considerations. It represents a pattern of social, political and cultural organization that is slightly or entirely not conncted to the authority of the state. These organizations, at their various levels, represent a means of expression and opposition by society to any contemporaneous authority. We note through the definition of this term that it does not fall within the ‘civil state’ debate, for controversy persists because of its novelty in political thought.

Artwork by Ghaida’a Abdullatif

An approach to the definition

Because there is not yet a stable historical and philosophical definition of the civil state, I believe it can be filled with all the values ​​that the previous definitions have put forth. Each definition looks at one angle at the expense of another, but combined they could establish a common ground between Islamic and secular parties. This could lead to coexistence, the establishing of the state and the bypassing of the terms ‘Islamic’ and ‘secular’, because these labels create polarization. We could move to the term ‘civil’, which includes the separation of the state both from clerics and the military, given that neither group represents the will of the people nor do they embolden a democracy in which power should be in the hands of the people (for both groups have gained power without free elections). It also includes freedom and equality for all citizens before the law.  Based on these principles, the civil state can be defined as “the state that preserves the independence of political authority and guarantees freedom of belief and worship and equal citizenship for all people.”

I think that the direction of this definition is necessary for Arab societies in general and Yemeni society especially, due to the fact that it encompasses all civic values ​​around which a societal consensus can be formed. And thus, a social peace can be achieved where the people can develop and advance.


[i] Odeh, J. The Civil State. The Arab Network for Research and Publishing. 1st Ed. 2015. pp. 73-74.

[ii] Odeh, J. The Civil State. pp. 74-75.

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Abdullah Al-Qaisi

An academic and a researcher in thought and philosophy. He holds a doctorate in Islamic Thought and is the president of the Tamden Organization for Intellectual Development (Yemen). He writes for a number of magazines and websites, and has published several books on Islamic thought.

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