Monthly Archives: February 2018

Interview: New Report on Muslim Humanitarianism

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 7.41.13 PMThe British Council recently released a report on The Muslim Humanitarian Sector co-authored by Abbas Barzegar and Nagham El Karhili, two scholars based at Georgia State University. In their introduction, Barzegar and El Nagham state the “report provides a summary of the major issues emerging from a year of dialogue based focused groups and stakeholder research aimed at better understanding the barriers to, and opportunities for, greater cooperation with the global Muslim aid and development sector.”

In this interview CIRIS research associates Chris Moses and Tobias Muller engage with the co-authors on the key issues highlighted in the report.


CIRIS: What is the biggest misunderstanding about the Muslim humanitarian sector?

Abbas Barzegar: That it exists. What I mean is that most people, including mainstream practitioners and policy makers, simply don’t know how entrenched Muslim humanitarian organizations are in the international relief and development landscape.

Nagham El Karhili: Unfortunately, the biggest misunderstanding about the Muslim humanitarian sector is the fact that they are, in one way or another, linked to terrorist organizations. As the second section of our report mentions, the Muslim humanitarian sector as a whole has been negatively affected by the out-growth of post-9/11 counter-terrorist finance (CTF) policies. Although they are recognized by many as some of the most impactful organizations on the ground, the constant scrutiny and pressures on these organizations have resulted in high profile cases of failed investigations and prosecutions which further erode the capacity for cooperation. The sector as a whole has invested heavily in trying to shift this narrative through their work with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), as the primary regulatory body responsible for adversely impacting the ability of global civil society to operate in fragile and conflict prone environments. As a result of these efforts, FATF revisited the language of Recommendation 8 and issued an official revision of the text in 2016, which now encourages a risk-based, proportional approach to managing the threat of terrorist abuse of the non-profit sector.

CIRIS: To what extent is the Muslim NGO experience unique? 

Abbas Barzegar: In many ways, it is quite predictable. For example, in regards to operating procedures, types of services offered, and so forth. Like their Christian counterparts, they do spend quite a bit of attention on post-relief operations and naturally venture into education, economics, and psycho-social services. However, particular structures of Islamic faith and practice occasion a whole of distinct practices: considering everything from Ramadan and Hajj welfare packages to interest-free micro-loans, there are activities that are unique to the way Muslim organizations prioritize their activities.

Nagham El Karhili: The experience of Muslim NGOs is rather unique due to their position in the aid and development field, along with the politicization of their work. The sector is almost at a double disadvantage due to the fact that not only do these organizations have to deal with issues of credibility as faith-based organizations (FBOs), but also, they are the main target of counter terrorist finance policy. Although the organizations have increased their efforts to operate more transparently by publishing financial reports, abiding with the various requirements, and working in collaboration with other faith based and secular actors, trust-building seems to be a rather slow process.

CIRIS: In the report you mention that there seems to be a consensus that faith-based organisations are particularly well placed to address challenges like political conflict, violence and extremism. What makes these organisations more effective?


Abbas Barzegar (photo credit : Georgia State University)

Abbas Barzegar: It is often reported that they earn a greater level of trust by grassroots actors and therefore demonstrate more buy-in and follow-through among actors. Factors such as cultural and religious proximity help develop this sensibility, but studies have also shown that theology and shared faith are less important than the simple sense of long-term and holistic investment. Because faith-based groups are less restricted by international aid and relief norms, they often expand their programming beyond the immediate needs of shelter, food, etc. Instead, faith-based groups are seen by beneficiaries as being committed to long-term solutions. Hence, for sensitive issues related to social and political conflict that require trust and commitment, faith-based groups simply seem to be much more versatile than conventional NGOs.


Nagham El Karhili (photo credit: Georgia State University)

Nagham El Karhili: Muslim NGOs are best positioned to address a variety of challenges due to their access and credibility with beneficiaries. Given the fact that Muslim aid organizations are operative in some of the most conflict-ridden areas and have considerable access to human resources, it is clear that the sector as a whole has now positioned itself as a key partner in the delivery of critical aid and relief to some of the most vulnerable populations around the world. This is especially important given that a disproportionate amount of the now unprecedented number of forcibly displaced peoples stem from Muslim societies in and around the greater MENA region.

CIRIS: To what extent does the religious agenda of these organisations harbour the danger of preferring to give aid to some groups while marginalising others?

Abbas Barzegar: This is a legitimate concern for all stakeholders involved. However, like the well-trodden path of Christian NGOs, large, independent Muslim NGOs – by which I mean not affiliated with a government or particular religious structure – operate under international norms of neutrality and non-discrimination. They have long-track records and partnerships in that can demonstrate this trend. Of course, there are expansive networks that still blur the line between proselytization and charity—just like many Christian groups—but these actors are not the focus of our study and do not quite represent the sector as such.

Nagham El Karhili: Throughout our research we were quickly faced with the fact that the majority of Muslim NGOs overwhelmingly identify as religiously inspired rather than having a religious agenda. This is seen through their clearly articulated vision and values which specify their commitment to serving those in needs regardless of their religious affiliation. Furthermore, this is seen in practice in the scope of the work of these organizations: they serve religiously diverse beneficiaries and have been collaborating with some of the biggest faith-based and secular actors alike.

CIRIS: When you recommend “augment[ing] renewed efforts of collaboration and coordination between the mainstream development community and the Muslim humanitarian sector”, is it possible to suggest that this is part of a wider challenge? That is to say, is this specific goal part of a broader set of issues relating to how the mainstream development community might need to re-think and re-focus its current work and efforts?

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Interview: Christopher Douglas on ‘Religion and Fake News’

Religion and Fake News cover

In January 2018 CIRIS released a fascinating new report by Prof Chris Douglas on religion and fake news. The report explores the religious dimension of fake news in both Europe and the United States and offers recommendations for how policymakers and other leaders can fight back against faith-based fake news.

Christopher Douglas teaches American literature and religion at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. He wrote the report for the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy, which CIRIS serves as secretariat.

(Click here for a version of the report with hyperlinks rather than endnotes.)

In this interview, members of the CIRIS team engage Prof Douglas on several of the issues raised in his report.


CIRIS: In your report you identify three asymmetries when it comes to religion and fake news in the US and Europe. What are those asymmetries and why do they matter?

Douglas: First, in the 2016-17 elections, fake news circulated more among Americans than Europeans. Second, fake news circulates among conservatives more than liberals. Third, fake news targeting conservatives often features religious themes.

In my paper I try to figure out why those asymmetries exist. I hypothesize that part of the explanation is the history in the U.S. of a particular faith tradition – white Christian fundamentalism – that cultivated skepticism to mainstream sources of knowledge like universities and professional journalism. This faith tradition didn’t just oppose modern knowledge – it cultivated institutions of counter-expertise to oppose ideas like evolution, Bible criticism, and now climate change.

CIRIS: You argue that the “alternative information ecosystem” of conservative American Protestant evangelicalism has made that community particularly vulnerable to fake news. And yet all religious communities create, at least to some extent, their own distinctive institutions that reinforce their belief systems. Why have American evangelicals proven more vulnerable than, say, American Catholics?

Douglas: Conservative American Protestant evangelicals – or, more narrowly, fundamentalists – contested two academic ideas that have generally been accepted by Catholics and mainline Protestants. The fundamentalist tradition was born in opposition to the science of evolution and to the historical-critical method of Biblical criticism, especially as they accelerated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These bodies of modern expertise are officially and generally (to the extent they are understood) accepted by American Catholics and mainline Protestant churches.

What makes American fundamentalism distinct is its construction of a significant network of counter-expertise supporting its theological views on creationism and the inerrant, literal Word of God. Christian fundamentalist Bible colleges and universities, publishers and bookstores, newspapers and magazines, radio and then television shows, museums, websites, and campus ministries, together formed an infrastructure of institutions that resisted elite, secular expert knowledge. This extensive network has no sizable analogue in other Western countries.

CIRIS: For decades religious conservatives have rebuked secular liberals for replacing objective truth with subjectivism and relativism. Now it seems the script has flipped. How did we end up in this odd historical situation where those proclaiming a commitment to truth are falling for fake news and relativists are preaching the importance of objective truth? 

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News & Events

8th Dec 2017

CIRIS Co-sponsors 2-day Workshop on ‘Islam and Space in Europe’

CIRIS Research Associates Tobias Muller and Chris Moses organised a workshop, “Religious? Secular? Re-thinking Islam and Space in Europe”,  together with Adela Taleb (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin). CIRIS was one of the sponsors of the two-day event, which brought together twenty scholars from a diverse range of fields, including anthropology, political science, music, architecture, geography, sociology, criminology, […]



21st Feb 2018

Interview: Christopher Douglas on ‘Religion and Fake News’

In January 2018 CIRIS released a fascinating new report by Prof Chris Douglas on religion and fake news. The report explores the religious dimension of fake news in both Europe and the United States and offers recommendations for how policymakers and other leaders can fight back against faith-based fake news. Christopher Douglas teaches American literature and […]


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