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?
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?
13 July 2017 – CIRIS Graduate Research Associate Tobias Müller recently contributed a chapter in a report on Muslims in the UK and Europe published by the Centre for Islamic Studies at Cambridge University. Müller’s chapter, ‘Constructing Islam and Secularism in the German Islam Conference,’ argues that beyond the intentions expressed by government officials, the aims of the Conference and the expectations towards Muslims prescribe major restructuring measures of the Muslim community, cooperation with security agencies, and alignment with an undetermined set of “German values.” The full report, co-edited by Paul Anderson and Julian Hargreaves, presents papers from a symposium the Centre for Islamic Studies held in May 2016.
2 May 2017 – CIRIS Graduate Research Associate Matthew Rowley recently edited a collection of essays for the journal Transformation. The special issue, coedited with Dr Emma Wild-Wood, focuses on religion, hermeneutics and violence. Central to each essay is the relationship between readers, texts, and killing. Key questions addressed in the volume include:
- What causes religious violence?
- What is the relationship between beliefs, texts and violence done in the name of God?
- How should one respond to historical violence within their own tradition?
- How should one respond to acts of violence performed by those in another faith community?
- How are harmful beliefs formed and what can be done to prevent believers from doing the unbelievable?
Rowley contributed two articles to the collection. The co-authored introductory article summarises ‘the state of modern scholarship on key debates concerning religion and violence, [and] encourages the careful study of how individuals or groups in peculiar historical circumstances interact with their sacred texts and beliefs in a way that facilitates violence or oppression’.
Rowley’s second article examines how people come to ‘inhabit’ a particular sacred text and frame their violence through that text. As case studies, the article looks at individual violence (child sacrifice), communal violence (conquest), and eschatologically oriented violence (cosmic war). It ‘examines one common practice among many who believe their killing pleases or is willed by God—inhabiting biblical texts. Focusing on the Abrahamic and Mosaic narratives and on eschatology, [it explains] part of the process whereby individuals and groups come to believe that they are participating in killing patterned on or prophesied in scripture. Finally, this article [suggests] a scripture-based approach aimed at moving an individual or group away from the harmful habitation of sacred texts’.
- ‘Religion, Hermeneutics and Violence: An Introduction’ (Matthew Patrick Rowley and Emma Wild-Wood).
- ‘The Use of Violent Biblical Texts by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda’ (Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala).
- ‘Early Modern Religious Violence and the Dark Side of Church History’ (John Coffey).
- ‘Christian Responses to Islamism and Violence in the Name of Islam’ (Colin Chapman).
- ‘Child Sacrifice, Conquest and Cosmic War: On the Harmful Habitation of Biblical Texts’ (Matthew Patrick Rowley).
- ‘Christian Hermeneutics and Narratives of War in the Carolingian Empire’ (Robert A.H. Evans).
Sage has made articles 1, 3 and 4 open access.
16 March 2017 – CIRIS Managing Director Judd Birdsall presented a paper this week on ‘Religion, Politics, and Soft Power: Examples from U.S. Diplomacy’ at a conference at Tbilisi State University exploring ‘Religion and Soft Power in the South Caucasus’. The conference was coordinated by the Georgian Institute of Politics (GIP) and the University of Fribourg, and made possible by the financial support of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SCOPES-Program). The conference showcased the publication of a new compendium of policy memos on religion and soft power in the South Caucasus region.
Photo credits: Georgia Institute of Politics
In May 2016 CIRIS hosted a seminar with The Revd Dr James Walters, chaplain and interfaith advisor at the London School of Economics. Here CIRIS research associate and Cambridge Divinity PhD student Chris Moses gets Walters’ thoughts on the challenges and opportunities posed by religious diversity on university campuses.
CIRIS: Can you tell us a bit about your professional trajectory, including your role at the LSE Faith Centre?
The Revd Dr James Walters: What I love about my role at the LSE is that it’s gathered together all strands from my life so far: a love of priestly ministry, academic interests, and experience in politics. And I guess the new thing that was added through this role has been engagement in interfaith relations, which I had some experience of before, but it has really developed in a new way at the LSE.
CIRIS: Can you give some background about the establishment of the LSE Faith Centre?
JW: I think it came out of discussions that began at the LSE after the 7/7 bombings in London, which generated a lot of anxiety about religious cohesion within the city more broadly, and on the LSE campus. That also coincided with the incorporation of religion and belief into the Equality Act, which was passed in 2010. So, there was a perceived need for some kind of facility to make it possible for religious people to express their faith on the campus.
What I have sought to add since I took up post has been the slightly more constructive agenda of seeing the opportunities presented by a very diverse international study body for developing religious understanding and interfaith cohesion as a preparation for graduation into a world where religious conflict is very much on the agenda.
CIRIS: What have been the greatest challenges to date?
JW: There’s often moments of crisis, and they require a constructive response. They might relate to events in the wider world, such as the killing of drummer Lee Rigby or the attack on Gaza, which generate repercussions for the LSE student body.
But I would say the more ongoing challenge has been the cultural shift in terms of LSE’s engagement with religion, and particularly those who were concerned that a secular institution was being made ‘religious’ through the creation of this Centre. What I’ve sought to do is explain that if there’s been a shift it’s been in our understanding of secularism, moved from a programmatic secularism which has sought to say, ‘We don’t want to engage with religion in any way at LSE’, towards a procedural secularism, which acknowledges the fact that we are not a confessional university and there is no privilege according to one religious faith, but we can seek to negotiate provision and opportunity for all the different religious and non-religious perspectives within the student body.
CIRIS: How do you reach out to those espousing exclusivist accounts of religion, and would not ordinarily be interested in something like the LSE Faith Centre?
JW: We’re very explicit about our agenda. We do not want to get everybody to agree, as if we could distill all these religious perspectives into something we can all share. That was the old agenda of interfaith relations, which is fortunately no longer in vogue.
Being the LSE, we’re trying to be quite pragmatic about it. We’re looking at a world where there is an escalation in religious violence, and we’re saying, ‘We want to reduce this, and we think an important way to do this is simply understand what other people believe, and to deepen respect people have for other positions’. And to say that, we need to do that in honesty, so we want people to bring the fullness of their beliefs and their perspectives to the table.
CIRIS: How does the Faith Centre balance its positive perspective on faith with a meaningful engagement with the many problems associated with religion?
JW: The Centre is founded upon a positive vision of the kind of the world of religious coexistence and understanding that we want to see, and everything we do is working towards that. But, if we don’t open up some cans of worms along the way, then we’re not being honest about how to realise the vision. That includes asking the difficult questions about the treatment of women in faith communities, attitudes towards lesbian gay bisexual transgender people, uses and abuses of scripture, and of course, religious violence. So we’re seeking to have those kinds of conversations respectfully, and without the judgement of secular assumptions, but pursuing the agenda of this positive vision.
CIRIS: You’ve had experience of both Cambridge and the LSE. How would you compare the place of chaplaincy in these institutions?
JW: I sometimes feel very grateful that I am chaplain in a secular university, where the engagement with religion is quite a new development. So, we’ve been able to do that without some of the baggage that other confessional universities will have, such as how we stay faithful to our traditions while also expanding. There have been questions for us but of a different order because we are a secular university.
I suppose that for a university with a church heritage like Cambridge the task is different, but there are also advantages. There is already a discourse around religion present, and there are already resources around campus for engaging in a broader conversation about religious pluralism and conflict.
But I think the challenge must be how to develop and expand a Christian heritage that has itself been contested in various ways over the years into something that is responsive to both a more religiously diverse student body and a world where we have to take the non-Christian religions more seriously. And that’s a challenge not just for Oxbridge chapels and chaplains, but for the Church of England more broadly.
CIRIS: What is the future trajectory of interfaith relations on campus?
JW: All the evidence points to a more difficult situation. Religion seems to be increasingly contentious in the politics of the National Union of Students, and within universities themselves in many places. But, I hope that we’re modeling something constructive that can at least contextualise those disagreements, and put some energy into a more constructive engagement with religious difference on campus.
Note: this article by Judd Birdsall was originally published by Georgetown University’s Cornerstone blog on 6 June 2016.
In May the House passed a bipartisan bill that would bring America’s global religious freedom advocacy into the twenty-first century. The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150) provides a number of critical updates and upgrades to the existing International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. The new bill—or Marco Rubio’s nearly identical Senate version (S. 2878)—merits the Senate’s prompt approval.
In its day the 1998 IRFA was an innovative, landmark piece of legislation. It created a vast architecture—an ambassador-at-large, State Department office, independent commission, reports, lists, sanctions, and other tools—for advancing religious freedom abroad. It became a model for other liberal democracies as they joined the fight for freedom of religion and belief worldwide.
But in the intervening 18 years, as scholarship on religion in global affairs has raced forward and the dynamics of religious persecution have morphed and complexified, the legislative mandate of U.S. IRF policy has remained stuck in the ’90s.
I served in the State Department’s IRF Office during the Bush and Obama administrations and experienced first-hand how the 1998 act created both important opportunities and conceptual, bureaucratic, and practical obstacles to a more effective U.S. promotion of religious liberty.
CIRIS research associate Arthur Ghins was in Brussels at the time of the recent terrorist attacks on the airport and subway. In this interview with CIRIS managing director Judd Birdsall he reflects on the religious and political dynamics of contemporary Belgium from his vantage point as both as a resident of Brussels and as a scholar of 19th century European political thought.
CIRIS: What was your immediate reaction when you heard the news about the attacks?
Ghins: I was stunned, of course. I think the psychological impact of a terrorist attack is far greater when it happens in the town where you grew up, in places you have been to hundreds of times. Even though I had already been deeply shocked by the Paris attacks, the geographical distance had also been somehow a symbolic distance. When the attacks happened in Brussels, I thought: this is happening here and now, it’s going to have a massive impact on our daily lives.
Maybe this will sound a bit naïve, but I was also all the more astonished because I did not seriously think that Brussels was a genuine target. Perhaps in part because I thought quite cynically that terrorists would not decide to strike their “headquarters” in Europe. Sadly enough, Belgium is indeed the country in Europe that proportionally has sent the highest number of youngsters to fight for ISIS in Syria.
CIRIS: So why would the terrorists attack their own country of residence?
In November 2015 Birkbeck University’s Dr Ben Gidley gave a lecture at CIRIS on Christian, Muslim, and Jewish diaspora communities in London. Here CIRIS research associates Margot Dazey and Chris Moses ask Gidley about the state of diasporic research, his own research on diaspora groups within London’s famously diverse East End, and the policy implications of such research.
CIRIS: Can you tell us about the main aims of the Oxford Diasporas Programme, as well as those of your specific project?
Gidley: I think there’s been a big turning towards the concept of diaspora across a number of disciplines recently and the term had sort of spiraled off into all sorts of different meanings. So, part of the intention of the Oxford Diasporas Programme—which has been running for almost five years now—was to take stock of the state of play and have a bit of conceptual clarity around the concept.
Another part was to take a number of different disciplinary and methodological approaches—ethnographic in particular but many others—and to develop case studies of diaspora in a number of different contexts, in particular ones which have been less researched or which have pushed the concept a little bit. Within that, our project at COMPAS was about East London, and diasporic associational politics, looking at three faiths from 1880 to the present.
CIRIS: Why did you start in 1880?
Gidley: 1880 is a significant moment. The last two decades of the Victorian period are when the East End as we know it now really came into being. In the 1880s we saw the Jack the Ripper killings, a whole series of investigative reports on white slaving and child labour and so on in the East End. And that coincides with mass Jewish migration, which began at the very end of the 1870s and picked up rapidly through the 1880s. By the end of the 1880s, the East End was seen as a kind of Jewish quarter.
CIRIS: What would you say have been the main religious trajectories of the East End since 1880?
Note: This article by Afeefa Syeed was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on 8 December 2015.
It’s toughest for the young ones who look at pictures of the bad guys and say, “But Mama, he looks like me.”
Our American Muslim children are growing up in a world of warped lunacy that takes what they know about a beloved prophet or God and turns it into reasons for anguish. And the frustrations are even greater when young ones watch the news or are witness to confrontations that end with their asking, “Daddy, why does that man say I’m going to hell?”
As Muslim parents and teachers, we feel a heaviness in our hearts about the world and because of this hopelessness and helplessness, we are stripped of the superpowers usually assigned to us in those little eyes. Nevertheless, our children are an amana, a trust for us to keep safe while we have them in our care. Being present with them and understanding their feelings is the heart of parenting in this complex and difficult time.
In order to be conscientious and responsive parents, American Muslims might think of the following elements that are becoming part of our new normal:
Continue reading at the LA Times
Click here to read Syeed’s article for Patheos on ‘Supporting Ourselves and Each Other – A Spiritual Response to these Times’