Social policy in the Arab world: the search for social justice.

AuthorIsmael, Jacqueline S.

IN THE WESTERN WORLD IN GENERAL, its English-speaking parts in particular, representations of the Arab world tend to be unsympathetic at best, and are usually couched in metaphors that presume an essentialist image of the Arab--the quintessential Other in chauvinist discourses. The subject of social justice in the Arab world in particular conjures up images of repression and extremism--veiled women, suicide bombers and fanatical clerics. This article is written against the backdrop of such representations and in the spirit of enhancing the cultural competence of human service professionals (health, education and social welfare) engaged with people from the Arab world.

Engagement with the Arab world has been both a personal and intellectual journey for us for the Arab world has been our home for more or less extended periods in various stages of our family life; (1) and studying the Arabs has been a vocation throughout our academic careers . This spans more than three decades for Jacqueline, and is reflected in her scholarly record from the publication of her first book, Kuwait: Social Change in Historic Perspective (1982), to her latest work with William W. Haddad, Barriers to Reconciliation: Case Studies on Iraq and the Palestine-Israel Conflict (2006). For Shereen, it spans less than a decade, and is reflected in a number of journal articles, including "Social Policy in the Arab World: Iraq as a Case Study" (2003) and "The Children of Iraq" (2007). For us, the old dictum "the personal is political" has been interwoven into the fabric of our lives as "the political is personal" for we have had to daily confront the age-old myths and metaphors about the Arab world that have warped into open hostility since the infamous 9/11. It is in this context that our collaboration as a mother-daughter research team was initiated with a research project on a case study of women's search for justice in the Arab world (Ismael & Ismael, 2000).

In the course of this project, we discovered that the backdrop of misrepresentations alluded to above are based on myths. Myths are powerful vehicles of discourse for they are usually based on grains of truth or isolated facts taken out of context and generalized to represent essential characteristics of the whole. Myths about women in the Arab world, for example, are generally based on facts about either Gulf women (veiled, politically marginalized and pampered) or poor women (oppressed, exploited and brutalized). These are taken out of their political and social contexts and generalized into hard core stereotypes that distort definitions of the situation of women in the Arab world. As a fundamental principle in sociology dictates, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" (Thomas 1970). In other words, the definition of a situation largely determines how it will be reacted to, and definitions of the situation in the Arab world framed in the West have provided the prescription for deadly interventions into it. It is in this context that we have undertaken to examine the issue of social policy in the Arab world in terms of the struggle for social justice.


Definitions of a situation are bound up in the very terms we use to represent a thing. As observed by the philosopher Michel Foucault (1972), "it is the ironic title of a work that modifies its own form, displaces its own data, and reveals, at the end of the day, a quite different task. A task that consists of ... practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak." Terms like "the Arab world" derive from a defining discourse that represents an institutionalized way of thinking about it, as demonstrated by Edward Said's seminal work on the epistemological construction of the Arab world in orientalist discourse (Said 1978). The term Arab world, for example, represents a geo-political designation referring to the 22 states that stretch across North Africa and Southwest Asia where Arabic is the dominant language or mother tongue. In other words, it presents a fundamental image of the subject matter--a politically defined image--that in effect sets the framework for discussing the topic. Similarly, the concept of social policy has similar paradigmatic roots as the geopolitical designation, and the subject matter for its discussion is the state. As reflected in the dominant theoretical approaches to social policy--regime theory and convergence theory--this presents a linear image of the topic that essentially belies the fact that the Arab state system itself is an artifact of 20th century imperialist geo-politics, a fact that has fundamentally skewed the struggle for social justice in the Arab world.

Complexity Theory offers an alternative perspective. It is an interdisciplinary area that represents an approach to the study of complex dynamic systems--that is, to systems as non-deterministic entities composed of many parts interacting with each other and their environment in unpredictable ways (Casti 1994; Cilliers 1998). In the social sciences, complexity theory replaces the determinism of systems theory (and its focus on the unfolding of predictable outcomes of social evolution) with holist models that focus on social evolution as a non-linear process of adaptation to change and the emergence of unanticipated patterns of human interaction (Nowotny 2005; Capra 2005). The term complex adaptive system (CAS) is used to describe systems that have the capacity to adapt to unpredictable change in their environments. Approaching the topic of social policy and social justice in the Arab world from the perspective of complexity theory, the fundamental image of the subject matter is that of Arab societies as complex adaptive systems. Society, generally defined as a grouping of people organized within the framework of common political, economic and cultural institutions, is a dynamic system--that is, a system composed of many entities (such as social classes, social movements, social groups, etc.) interacting with each other and their environment (the complex of physical, social, economic and political circumstances in which societies function) in unpredictable ways. The dynamics of the complex adaptive system adapting to unpredictable change in their environments constitute a process of non-deterministic social change.

"There are three points which need to be made," in adopting the image of society as a complex adaptive system:

The first is that we now have available an account of dynamics which centers on non-linear changes in the properties of systems as a whole rather than the linear trajectories of the elements which are located within those systems.... we should replace mechanics with thermodynamics as our central analogy. The second, which follows from the first, is that systems are inherently evolutionary and that changes over time are not reversible--systems are essentially historical. This means that such systems have emergent properties and provides us with a way of conceptualizing time which permits a proper understanding of the relationship between the temporal and the social. Finally, we have available a developed, sociologically located discussion of the meta-theoretical character of complexity theory which identifies it as a scientific ontology complementary to the philosophical ontology of critical realism (Byrne 1997). From the perspective of complexity theory, this paper will address the issue of social policy in the Arab world in terms of three dynamics that have shaped the struggle for social justice in the evolution of contemporary Arab societies: cultural forces, historical forces and ideological forces. Social justice in this context refers to a culturally legitimated normative orientation towards what is considered a fair distribution of wealth in society; and social policy relates to that part of public policy concerned with establishing guidelines for changing, maintaining or creating a basic standard of social welfare.


In the Muslim world, Islam has constituted a pervasive cultural influence in the patterns of everyday life since its emergence in the 7th century A.D. in Arabia. As it relates to social policy, Islam represents a powerful normative orientation in society about state responsibility for social welfare and social justice (Ismael 1985). In a theo-centric state like Iran or Saudi Arabia, the role of Islam is direct, but even in secular states such as Egypt, Iraq before the occupation, or Turkey, the cultural influence of Islam on social policy is pervasive. If we understand culture in terms of the norms and values that shape human expectations in the patterns of everyday life, we can begin to perceive the significance of Islam as norms and values in the Muslim world derive from the principles of Islam interpreted not only in the framework of community customs and practices but also in the context of power dynamics. Norms and values, in other words, are not static ethics; rather, they are pliable principles (pliable in the context of power dynamics). Islamic culture from this perspective may be conceived as a complex web of shifting patterns of interpretation of Islamic principles that link people in different locales of time and place with human expectations and endeavors.

In Islam, the welfare of the individual and community are interconnected, and the state is responsible for their maintenance and welfare. While there is not an explicit theory of state in the Quran and Sunna, which are the two main sources of Islamic doctrine, the discourse of both of them focuses on principles of governance and social welfare (Ismael & Ismael 1985). The significance of the Muslim community's social welfare is integral to the principles of governance (Hasan 1967, 111-114). The basic standard for state responsibility for social welfare is established in the Quran's imposition of...

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