Interview: New Report on Muslim Humanitarianism
The 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.”
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: 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: 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?
Abbas Barzegar: The international community is well aware that fundamental changes need to be made to the way global aid and relief operate. The World Humanitarian Summit highlighted a range of these challenges and has painted a rough roadmap on how to move forward. So, yes, this is part of a larger shake-up in the humanitarian sector. Thankfully, the role of faith-actors is more and more regularly becoming part of the solution conversation and there are great organizations such as the German-led Partnership for Religion and Development or the Joint Learning Initiatives that are centering this effort. The UN Interagency Task Force on Religious Community Engagement is also a rich resource to help. However, engagement with the “Muslim-sector” is still radically behind where it could and should be.
Nagham El Karhili: Yes, most definitely. There is a real conversation to be had about the overall place of religion in development. Historically speaking, religious organizations were some of the founding actors of aid and development. Unfortunately, religious discourse has been marginalized out of the development framework as discussions of religion in the context of humanitarianism had become muted and silenced through the adoption of secularism as the main humanitarian framework. For far too long, religion has been synonymous with divisiveness, alignment to violence and intolerance, and belonging to the realm of problematic ideology, which was seen as not an appropriate structure for humanitarian engagement. Fortunately, a shift has occurred in the past decade or so through a willingness to include religious actors in the conversation. The role played by these actors can clearly no longer be ignored resulting in an overall recognition of the centrality of religion and the re-thinking of secularism in humanitarianism.
CIRIS: One of your recommendations is the development of educational materials about the Muslim humanitarian sector. Can you give concrete examples on what these materials should be about?
Abbas Barzegar: We need concrete evidence about the relationship between Muslim aid networks and Islamic revivalist groups. As of now, there is this myth that these groups are all simply fronts for extremist activity. As you know, religious literacy is a buzz-word these days and it is becoming rather pervasive in foreign service offices and agencies. Most of this material is dedicated to debunking common myths about religious actors as well as highlighting the diversity of institutions and networks involved. In the Muslim case, the routine problems are simply compounded by the current political moment. So, specific trainings about things like: the types of organizations that exist, their funding structures, their relationship to religious sects/denominations/structures, their political orientations, and so on. These areas can very easily be explained to media, government, and mainstream practitioners provided the appropriate forums and opportunities.
Nagham El Karhili: As governments and INGOs deepen their collaboration and engagement with FBOs in order to tackle a range of shared global challenges, there is an acute need for reliable research and analysis to help practitioners and policy makers increase their efficacy and impact. While long-standing relationships with Western, mostly Christian, FBOs allow policy makers and practitioners navigate this space with relative familiarity, there is a dire need for accurate information and analysis about the critical role of the humanitarian aid and development sector in Muslim societies. Our research suggests that there is a systemic lack of information about the humanitarian aid and development landscape in Muslim societies. Without more independent practice and policy-oriented research in this area, the international community will continue to face unnecessary obstacles in meeting its humanitarian aid and development goals.
CIRIS: How do you see academic research on the Muslim humanitarian sector developing in the foreseeable future?
Abbas Barzegar: Without strategic vision and intervention, research will remain piecemeal and siloed. The current trajectories of research fall neatly within the existing paradigms of development policy, cultural anthropology, and the worst of all, counter-terrorism studies. There is some legal research being done as well. However, these are all efforts of individuals or small networks supported by intermittent funding opportunities and driven by personal commitment. Don’t get me wrong, there is great work being done out there, but there is massive space for growth. The Muslim philanthropic and humanitarian sectors themselves have yet to prioritize academic research – or research at all, to be frank – to their own detriment. So, really, until there is a type of strategic and systemic intervention, we can probably expect things to remain par for the course.
Nagham El Karhili: It is clear that the current interest in engaging with Muslim NGOs will considerably push the academic research agenda forward. Although it is a slow move to a more nuanced understanding of these organizations, the nature of work they do, and the place of faith in aid and development is being heavily questioned by scholars. This is especially positive as Muslim NGOs seem to also understand that they can hugely benefit from more research leading them to invest in collaborative efforts with research institutions and be open to academic research. Mainly, it is important that future research tackles questions from a multidisciplinary perspective. Muslim NGOs can be studied from a communication perspective, as organizational systems of meaning making, and the impact they have in identity building. Additionally, development studies offer researchers ways to investigate the role that these NGOs play as aid actors. From a religious studies view, the research could potentially focus on understanding the dynamic role of religion in the work done by the organizations as well as testing the cultural proximity thesis. Finally, as these actors are still heavily politicized, the fields of international relations and political science can also contribute by offering answers to the role these NGOs have in current political international issues.