At long last governments and international development agencies are interested in social welfare and social protection issues in the MENA region (particularly in the Arab and Muslim-populated countries). Ten years ago this was a very different story. No one spoke of the need to protect citizens in the MENA region (except perhaps for the UN Arab Human Development Reports) and government officials did not really know what social policy meant. But since the mid-2000s we have seen an explosion of new terms such as social protection, social security, social assistance, social solidarity, social integration and new welfare mix in the titles of reports and conference events. But are we any closer towards understanding how social policy systems work in the MENA region, and crucially, what the way forward might be now that the Arab spring has brought issues of social justice and social welfare in MENA to the fore?
Ten years ago, religion and religious social welfare was a much more welcoming environment to research in. It was much less fraught with suspicion because few people paid any attention to it. Even groups of a political nature with well-established welfare wings such as Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood were much more open to outside researchers coming to see what they did. Iran was a country to which western researchers could gain an entry visa in reasonable short order and through standard application processes. Today, the situation is vastly different: the doors to researchers have been shut as Muslim organisations undertaking social welfare work come under heavy scrutiny. To get a visa to Iran these days requires an invitation and a special reference number from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is not an anecdotal point – this change in circumstances is crucial for finding a way forward because:
- Muslim groups, no matter how notoriously linked they are to armed military struggle have extensive social welfare networks in the countries they operate in which are well-organised and successfully solve the daily social and economic problems that everyday people face.
- It is impossible to devise policies that can support social integration and social security in the MENA region without taking into account the place and role of religion and religious groups in society there.
My research over the last decade has extended far beyond Muslim groups; I single these out for mention above only because they are part of the fire that feeds the appetite of political and policy debate around the world. I have researched Christian and Druze welfare organisations in the MENA region too and here is the important point...
When we compare the types of services that are provided by religious welfare organisations in the MENA region, regardless of what political affiliation that organisation might have, we find that all of these organisations have a similar social welfare ethos which prioritises vulnerable groups such as orphans, the elderly and female-headed households. Indeed, they all operate on a social assistance basis, whether this be in-kind or in-cash. Take the case of Emdad and Caritas in Lebanon for example – Emdad is part of the family of Hezbollah-led welfare associations but it offers social assistance to some of the poorest segments of society which tend to be of the Shi’a denomination. Caritas is also a very prominent welfare and development organisation, linked to Caritas Internationalis, the welfare wing of the Catholic church – it provides the same kinds of social assistance and family support services as Emdad. So why and how has religion become a dirty word?
Religion is a force that is here to stay with us, in both eastern and western hemispheres. Alexis de Toqueville, in his famous travels around America remarked that the roots of western democracy lay in the hundreds of voluntary religious associations that undertook a whole array of neighbourhood and community work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Those primitive forms of spontaneous social organisation laid the foundations for the more complex, pluralist modern systems of governance that we have today.
Could we possibly conceive of a situation of similar spontaneous welfare groups with a religious character in the MENA region today?
In the western world, we have come to terms with the role of religion in public life and we accept that the welfare state was partly conceived by established churches in the aftermath of the Second World War. Prominent sociologists in North America and Europe such as Jurgen Habermas, Robert Bellah, Robert Putnam and even at one time Anthony Giddens, have been ready to pay homage to religion as a civic force which helps to promote community ties and social support networks. Yet, in the MENA region, we are increasingly facing a dominant discourse of religion, and Islam in particular, as a regressive, conservative and dictatorial if not 'terrorist' force. Why is this so and how can social science research add insights?
Governments and global development agencies will do well in the formulation of new social protection and social welfare policies, if they take serious account of the experience of religious organisations in social welfare provision. But beyond this, religion also informs the salient moral values which underpin particular conceptualisations of the good society in the MENA region. As an example, the family remains central in religious thinking on welfare – what we find in MENA countries is that both state agencies and religious organisations target services to vulnerable groups such as orphans or female-headed households because they have no male breadwinner. Indeed, welfare benefits to support able-bodied unemployed men in the MENA countries (save for example Turkey, Israel and more recently Bahrain and Jordan) do not exist.
So for policy purposes we can only understand patterns of social welfare organisation in the MENA region by making the link to religion – for better, or worse, this is a force that the MENA region should not be ashamed of but should enter into dialogue with. To a certain extent, the message in this argument is obvious: you cannot turn a blind eye to a giant.