A basis for social peace in the Arab world?

A basis for social peace in the Arab world?

In the debate around regulatory policy (managed policy), the “principle of the social state” – that is the harmonization of social differences (“social question”) – plays a key role. In several Western countries, and a fortiori in Germany, the principle of the social state is even enshrined in the Constitution (foundation law, articles 20 and 21). One-hundred-and-twenty years ago, and after heated discussions and claims to resolve the social question, the principle of the social state was incorporated, in an exemplary way, in the social legislation established by Bismarck. Since then, the legitimacy and functionality of the principle of the social state have formed the subject of several political and public debates and have had their implementation methods refined.

Claims for the establishment of a social state are also heard in almost all Arab states – though under a form different from that applied in the West. It derives its origins from an “Islamic vision of the state” since Islam is not only a monotheistic religious doctrine, but also a state ideology which, by enjoining mandatory norms, values and codes of conduct, marks the state with its special imprint. According to the precepts of the Islamic faith, the socio-ethical principles of “solidarity” and of “subsidiarity” should be in the foreground in all Muslim countries.

What do these principles mean? Solidarity is a socio-ethical principle which derives its roots from the notion of “fraternity,” so dear to the French Revolution. It conceives the individual as part and parcel of society and requires him not to limit himself to his own well-being, but to also see to the well-being of the weaker ones in society. So defined, the principle of solidarity rests above all on the solidarity attitude of high-performance citizens, that is, on sympathy, helpfulness and reaching out to under-performing citizens. It is not the individual interests of each that have precedence, but rather the will of each individual to contribute – by his services – to the well-being of society, i.e. to show solidarity to those around him. Besides, the citizen has to be ready to accept the principle of the social state as part of his performance system. Seeing that the state has also to act according to the principle of equality, it must – inasmuch as it observes the criteria of equality and the rule of law – to see to the well-being of the whole population.

As an organizing principle, “subsidiarity” addresses the relationship between the state and the individual/society. The state brings assistance and support to the members of society who are incapable of resolving their problems by their own means. More practically, this means that state activity must be organized in conformity with the principle of the social state. At the same time, it does not have to turn into a threat to the freedom of the individual and of social groups. The subsidiarity principle sustains the social state and its system based on performance and merit, but it equally underscores the gaps and limitations of state intervention inasmuch as the latter restricts the freedom of the citizens. Freedom is a fundamental value and its protection appeals to the responsibility of each. The challenge consists, once again, in striking an optimal balance in state action.

Here, we come to the second question: “What is it that legitimizes the principle of the “social state?””


To begin with, one needs to mention “social security.” This concept comprises the creation of framework conditions likely to ensure an existence that is socially acceptable to each citizen. These conditions may be achieved, for instance, by means of social insurance measures, the creation of educational facilities, healthcare infrastructures and, finally, structures ensuring a minimum of security to the citizens who are incapable, by their own means, to access social services. Thus, the state ensures a decent existence to the citizens who, for various reasons, are incapable of providing against the hazards of life by a proper provision.

Next to “social security,” the second pillar of the social state is “social justice.” The latter requires the social state, in accordance with the subsidiarity principle, to support the economically vulnerable members of society, to prevent any too wide of gaps between the various social groups and to protect the more vulnerable members of society against the many risks that threaten their existence, without however removing or excessively curtailing fundamental freedoms. Indeed, the social state must also observe “individual freedom” as a “fundamental right.”

What about “solidarity” and “subsidiarity” in the Arab world? The fact that solidarity does not derive exclusively from an individual voluntary decision, insofar as it extends beyond the ethical obligations prescribed by the Koran – “sadaqa” (charity) and “zakat” (alms tax) – is attested by the existence of private foundations (awqaf), of a religious and ethical character, created most often by rich citizens. These foundations are quite common in Arab states. It is this solidarity which actually explains the creation, in 1928, of the Muslim Brotherhood association whose initial objective was to renew society according to the precepts of the Koran. Rapidly accepted by the citizens of other Arab and Islamic countries, despite temporary bans, this association created several sister organizations in other Arab countries. Since then, this organization has reported a strong politicization which goes beyond the mere principle of solidarity. Another supra-national organization, the “Islamic Solidarity Fund,” created by Saudi Arabia, disseminates Islamic solidarity on national and international level based, in particular, on a strict Wahabi interpretation of Islam.

As for “subsidiarity” as it exists in Germany, it is rare in Arab countries. However, in these countries, the state is a major actor in the social field. Most often, the military, civil servants and those in power have created a “state fund” which controls the means of production and the distribution of income. Socialist ideologies and social reforms related to development objectives which rest on social justice and participation by the masses in the means of production are quite common: “Baath Party socialism” in Syria and formerly in Iraq, the “Arab socialism” of Nasser, the “Algerian socialism” of Boumediene, the “Third Universal Theory” of Gadhafi, to mention but a few. They all promise to their respective countries both social justice and security guaranteed by the state. That these systems should question the fundamental right to “freedom” is a logical consequence of this economic and social policy. The social and distribution policy practiced by Saudi Arabia is of a completely different nature which, in view of the huge wealth accumulated thanks to the oil godsend, has led to the creation of various “rentier classes” of which some are privileged, indeed.