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?