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Transnational Muslim NGOs are important actors in the field of development and humanitarian aid. Through micro-sociological case studies, this article provides new empirical insights on the organizational identity of some of these NGOs. Using the post 9.11. aid field as a window through which to explore transnational Muslim NGOs, the article analyzes the ways in which two of the largest Muslim NGOs Islamize aid and the kinds of Islam they construct in this process, discussing how this relates to their position in the contemporary aid field. The Saudi Arabian International Islamic Relief Organization and the British Islamic Relief serve as emblematic examples of transnational Muslim NGOs today, each presenting different ways of understanding Islam: One promotes an all-encompassing Islam, embedded in almost all aspects of the organization; while the other demonstrates a quasi-secular Islam, most often relegated to the personal sphere. Likewise, the two organizations Islamize aid in different ways, based on different interpretations of the Global War on Terror and mainstream development discourses. The article concludes that the positions of the two NGOs are best understood as poles in a continuum, stretching from an embedded Islam, encouraging a thoroughly Islamized aid and blocking integration into the field of mainstream development and humanitarian aid, to an invisible Islam, accompanied by an almost secularized aid and facilitating integration into the aid field.
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ORIGINAL PAPER
Islamizing Aid: Transnational Muslim NGOs After 9.11
Marie Juul Petersen
International Society for Third-Sector Research and The John’s Hopkins University 2011
Abstract Transnational Muslim NGOs are important actors in the field of
development and humanitarian aid. Through micro-sociological case studies, this
article provides new empirical insights on the organizational identity of some of
these NGOs. Using the post 9.11. aid field as a window through which to explore
transnational Muslim NGOs, the article analyzes the ways in which two of the
largest Muslim NGOs Islamize aid and the kinds of Islam they construct in this
process, discussing how this relates to their position in the contemporary aid field.
The Saudi Arabian International Islamic Relief Organization and the British Islamic
Relief serve as emblematic examples of transnational Muslim NGOs today, each
presenting different ways of understanding Islam: One promotes an all-encom-
passing Islam, embedded in almost all aspects of the organization; while the other
demonstrates a quasi-secular Islam, most often relegated to the personal sphere.
Likewise, the two organizations Islamize aid in different ways, based on different
interpretations of the Global War on Terror and mainstream development dis-
courses. The article concludes that the positions of the two NGOs are best under-
stood as poles in a continuum, stretching from an embedded Islam, encouraging a
thoroughly Islamized aid and blocking integration into the field of mainstream
development and humanitarian aid, to an invisible Islam, accompanied by an almost
secularized aid and facilitating integration into the aid field.
Re
´
sume
´
Les ONG musulmanes internationales sont des acteurs importants dans
les secteurs du de
´
veloppement et de l’aide humanitaire. S’appuyant sur des e
´
tudes
de cas micro-sociologiques, cet article de
´
veloppe des analyses empiriques sur
l’identite
´
organisationnelle de certaines de ces ONG. Se plac¸ant dans le champ de
l’aide humanitaire post-11 septembre comme une fene
ˆ
tre a
`
travers laquelle e
´
tudier
M. J. Petersen (&)
Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies,
University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
e-mail: mariejuulpetersen@yahoo.dk
123
Voluntas
DOI 10.1007/s11266-011-9185-5
les ONG musulmanes internationales, l’article analyse les moyens selon lesquels
deux des plus importantes de ces ONG islamisent l’aide humanitaire et les types
d’Islam qu’elles construisent ce faisant. La discussion porte sur la manie
`
re dont ceci
est lie
´
a
`
leur position dans le champ contemporain de l’aide humanitaire. L’Organi-
sation internationale de Secours Islamique d’Arabie Saoudite (International Islamic
Relief Organization) et le Secours Islamique Britannique (Islamic Relief) servent
d’exemples emble
´
matiques quant aux ONG musulmanes transnationales
d’aujourd’hui, chacune pre
´
sentant diffe
´
rentes voies de compre
´
hension de l’Islam :
Alors que l’une fait la promotion d’un Islam universel, inte
´
gre
´
dans pratiquement tous
les aspects de l’organisation, l’autre met en œuvre un Islam quasi-l
¨
c, le plus souvent
rele
´
gue
´
a
`
la sphe
`
re du personnel. De me
ˆ
me, les deux organisations islamisent le
secours de manie
`
re diffe
´
rente, en fonction d’interpre
´
tations diffe
´
rentes de la lutte
mondiale contre le terrorisme et des discours dominants sur le de
´
veloppement.
L’article parvient a
`
la conclusion que les positions des deux ONG se comprennent
mieux en tant que po
ˆ
les d’une continuite
´
,sede
´
ployant entre un Islam inte
´
gre
´
,en
faveur d’un secours rigoureusement islamise
´
et bloquant l’inte
´
gration au sein du
secteur dominant du de
´
veloppement et de l’aide humanitaire, et un Islam invisible,
associe
´
a
`
un secours presque laı
¨
cise
´
et facilitant l’inte
´
gration dans le secteur de l’aide.
Zusammenfassung Transnationale muslimische NRO sind wichtige Akteure auf
dem Gebiet Entwicklung und humanita
¨
re Hilfe. Basierend auf mikrosoziologischen
Fallstudien gibt dieser Artikel neue empirische Einblicke in die organisatorische
Identita
¨
t einiger dieser NRO. Dieser Artikel analysiert die Art und Weise, wie zwei
der gro
¨
ßten muslimischen NRO Hilfe islamisieren sowie den Typ Islam, den sie in
diesem Prozess aufbauen, und ero
¨
rtert, wie sich dies auf deren Position auf dem
Gebiet der modernen Hilfe bezieht. Die International Islamic Relief Organization of
Saudi-Arabia und die britische Islamic Relief sind emblematische Beispiele von
gegenwa
¨
rtigen transnationalen muslimischen NRO - jede Organisation zeigt eine
andere Art und Weise, den Islam zu verstehen: Eine begu
¨
nstigt einen allumfas-
senden Islam, der in fast allen Aspekten der Organisation eingebettet ist, wa
¨
hrend
die andere einen gewissermaßen sa
¨
kularen Islam demonstriert, meistens relegiert
zum perso
¨
nlichen Lebensraum. Basierend auf verschiedenen Interpretationen des
Global War on Terror und Mainstream-Diskurs bezu
¨
glich Entwicklung islamisieren
beide Organisationen Hilfe auf verschiedene Art und Weise. Der Artikel schluss-
folgert, dass die beiden NRO am besten als Pole in einem Kontinuum zu verstehen
sind – eine mit eingebettetem Islam, wo Hilfe durch und durch islamisiert ist und die
Integration in Mainstream-Entwicklung und humanita
¨
re Hilfe blockiert wird, die
andere, mit unsichtbarem Islam, wo Hilfe fast sa
¨
kularisiert ist und die Integration
ins Gebiet Hilfe erleichtert wird.
Resumen Las ONG transnacionales musulmanas son actores importantes en el
a
´
mbito de la ayuda humanitaria y para el desarrollo. A trave
´
s de estudios de caso
microsociolo
´
gicos, este artı
´
culo ofrece nuevas perspectivas empı
´
ricas sobre la
identidad organizativa de algunas de estas ONG. Utilizando la ayuda posterior al 11
de septiembre como una ventana a trave
´
s de la cual explorar las ONG transnacio-
nales musulmanas, el artı
´
culo analiza co
´
mo dos de las principales ONG musulmanas
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123
islamizan la ayuda y los tipos de Islam que construyen en el proceso, y debate la
relacio
´
n que tiene este hecho en su posicio
´
n en la ayuda contempora
´
nea. International
Islamic Relief Organization (la Organizacio
´
n Isla
´
mica de Ayuda Internacional) de
Arabia Saudı
´
y Islamic Relief (Organizacio
´
n de Ayuda Isla
´
mica) de Britania son
ejemplos emblema
´
ticos de ONG musulmanas transnacionales de hoy, cada una de
ellas con su propia manera de entender el Islam: una fomenta un Islam omnipresente,
inserto en casi todos los aspectos de la organizacio
´
n, mientras que la otra defiende un
Islam casi secular, relegado con frecuencia a la esfera personal. Asimismo, las dos
organizaciones islamizan la ayuda de distintas maneras, en funcio
´
n de distintas
interpretaciones de la Guerra Mundial contra el Terrorismo y de los discursos
convencionales sobre el desarrollo. El artı
´
culo concluye que las posiciones de las dos
ONG se entienden mejor como polos en continuo, que abarcan desde un Islam
omnipresente, que defiende una ayuda cien por cien islamizada y que bloquea la
integracio
´
n en la ayuda humanitaria y para el desarrollo convencional, a un Islam
invisible, acompan
˜
ado por ayuda casi secularizada que facilita la integracio
´
n en este
campo.
Keywords NGOs Religion Islam 9.11. Development and humanitarian aid
Introduction
In Yemen, Islamic Relief runs the Al Mazrak camp, providing more than 19,000
refugees with shelter, food, water and healthcare. And for Ramadan last year,
International Islamic Relief Organization (in the following, IIROSA) offered iftar
meals to more than 25,000 families in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. These two
examples testify to the fact that Muslim NGOs play an important role in the field of
humanitarian and development aid. While recent years have witnessed an increasing
interest in religious, or faith-based, organizations within development and NGO
studies,
1
there is still very little research on Muslim NGOs, in particular
transnational Muslim NGOs.
2
Especially since 9.11., much of the existing literature,
often stemming from political science and terrorism studies, focuses on transna-
tional Muslim NGOs as political actors, whether analysing them as front
organizations for global militant networks such as Al Qaeda or as supporters of
national political parties and resistance groups in Palestine, Sudan, Afghanistan and
elsewhere (Yaylaci 2008, p 2).
3
Another strand of literature, emerging from
development studies and ‘practitioner literature’ (evaluations, policy papers, reports
1
See e.g. Clarke and Jennings (2008), Haynes (2007), Marshall and van Saanen (2007) and Tyndale
(2006) on religious NGOs in general, and Bradley (2005) and Bornstein (2003) on Christian NGOs.
2
For literature on local Muslim NGOs, see, e.g. Harmsen (2008), Sparre and Juul Petersen (2007), and
Wiktorowicz (2001) on Jordan; Clark (2004) on Egypt, Yemen and Jordan; Jawad (2009) on Lebanon;
and Benthall (Benthall 2008a) on Palestine.
3
See e.g. Burr and Collins (2006), Kohlman (2006), and Levitt (2006) on Muslim NGOs and their
alleged links with Al Qaeda, Hamas and other militant networks. For more sober analyses of transnational
Muslim NGOs and their relations to different political Islamic groups, see e.g. Benthall and Bellion-
Jourdan (2003), Kaag (2007), and Bellion-Jourdan (in Feher 2007).
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etc.) as part of a general interest in faith-based organizations, focuses on the role of
transnational Muslim NGOs in the implementation of development programmes,
discussing organizational strengths and weaknesses in relation to different
development objectives.
4
Finally, a third strand, growing out of law and
international relations studies, focuses on the legal implications of recent anti-
terror legislation for Muslim NGOs and NGOs in general.
5
While these literatures each in their way contribute to bringing to the fore a group
of organizations which has for long been neglected in literature on NGOs, they
leave unexplored certain aspects of transnational Muslim NGOs, insofar as they all
situate their analysis of these organizations on macro and meso levels. As such, they
tend to overlook issues of organizational identity, rarely asking questions as to how
these organizations understand themselves, their religion and the aid they provide.
Such questions require qualitative, micro-sociological or ethnographic studies of
individual Muslim NGOs, providing thick descriptions of the discourses and
practices of these organizations and the individuals constituting them.
6
Through in-
depth case studies of two selected transnational Muslim NGOs, this paper seeks to
contribute to filling this gap, exploring the ways in which these organizations
‘Islamize’ development and humanitarian aid.
Processes of Islamization
Unlike many studies of Muslim NGOs, this analysis is not based on a preconceived
and essentialized notion of what ‘Islam’ is. Instead, the analysis relies on a process-
oriented approach, making the construction and signification of ‘Islam’—and,
subsequently, ‘Islamic aid’—part of the subject matter of the analysis. In this, I am
inspired by the historian of religion Bruce Lincoln (2003, p. 5ff) and his ‘polythetic
and flexible’ definition of religion. According to Lincoln, religion consists in a
discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal and contingent, claiming
for itself a transcendent status; a set of practices aimed at implementing this
discourse by creating a proper world and proper human subjects as defined by the
discourse; a community whose members construct their identity with reference to a
religious discourse and its attendant practices; and finally institutions, or structures,
that regulates religious discourses, practices, and community, reproducing and
modifying them over time.
7
What makes these discourses, practices, communities
4
See e.g. de Cordier (2009b), Benthall (2008b) and Brikci (2005) for discussions of the benefits of
‘cultural proximity’; Kirmani and Khan (2008) for a discussion of Islamic Relief’s work with refugees;
and Benedetti (2006) on comparisons between Muslim and Christian NGOs. A sub-strand of this
literature is written by people who are themselves working in transnational Muslim NGOs, discussing
complementarities between Islamic theology and mainstream development principles. See e.g. Abuarqab
(2010), Krafess (2005), and several papers written by Islamic Relief staff (www.islamic-relief.com).
5
See e.g. Howell and Lind (2009), Shaw-Hamilton (in Alterman and von Hippel 2007), and Sidel (2006).
6
Exceptions are Clarke’s recent study of the partnership between Muslim Aid and UMCOR (2010); and
Ahmed’s analysis of three transnational Islamic NGOs in sub-Saharan Africa (2009).
7
Lincoln’s definition of religion is a response to Talal Asad’s claim that there cannot be a definition of
religion. Asad (1993, p. 29) argues that ‘there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only
because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is
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and structures religious is not primarily their specific content but their claims to
transcendent authority and truth. As such, virtually anything can be recoded as
‘religion’ or ‘religious’ (Lincoln 2003, p. 6). In other words, something is ‘religion’
or ‘religious’ when it is given religious meaning through religious discourses,
practices, communities and structures; when it is ‘religionized’ (or ‘sacralized’, as
Woodhead and Heelas (2000), among others, have termed it). In this perspective,
something is Islamic or Muslim when it is constituted as such through discourses,
practices, communities and structures that are concerned with matters of Islam
(traditions, symbols, figures, concepts, rules, stories, etc.) and claim a transcendent
authority by reference to Allah, the Qur’an and the sunna. Thus, a dress, a specific
kind of music or food can be Islamic or Muslim, just like practices of aid provision
can be if legitimized by reference to authorities in Islam.
In principle, anything can be religionized, and as such, anything can be religion.
This means that one cannot only look for religion in its conventional hiding places,
but must be open to finding it elsewhere as well, tracing what Mandaville (2007,
p. 327) calls ‘the migration of religious discourse and symbolic capital into spaces
not formally constituted as ‘religious’’’. However, that anything can in principle be
religionized does not mean that anything does become religionized. In practice,
there are very real limitations as to what can be religionized, and consequently what
can count as religion. Religions are not detached from history, structures and power
relations, but confined and curtailed by these, shaped in constant interaction with
them. Thus, in their constructions of ‘Islam’, actors build on historical cultures,
traditions and habits, just like contemporary political and economic structures
restrict and facilitate these constructions. And finally, certain actors have more
authority and legitimacy than others, making their versions of ‘Islam’ more valid
than others.
In this perspective, and quoting Deneulin and Radoki (2011, p 51) the task is to
understand how religious discourses are embodied in certain social practices,
structures and communities; how social and historical processes have lead to that
particular embodiment; and how religious discourses, practices, communities and
structures are redefined in light of changing social, economic and political contexts.
In other words, the analysis of transnational Muslim NGOs cannot simply be about
identifying the role of Islam in development aid, based on preconceived notions of
what Islam ‘is’, but should be about exploring the construction of ‘Islam’, asking
questions as to how and when Muslim NGOs ‘Islamize’ things (as well as how and
when they do not ‘Islamize’ things), and what kinds of ‘Islam’ they construct in the
Footnote 7 continued
itself the historical product of discursive processes’. To this Lincoln argues that all language and defi-
nitions are historical products of discursive processes—a fact that does not necessarily mean that all
attempts at definition are in vain. Instead, he advocates an understanding of definitions not as definitive
attempts to capture the innate and complete essence of things, but merely as provisional attempts to
clarify one’s thoughts (2003, p. 2). It is in this spirit that the above definition should be understood.
Voluntas
123
process, while at the same time paying attention to the structures, actors, and
practices delimiting and shaping these processes of Islamization.
8
The Argument
This article argues that the fate of transnational Muslim NGOs after the 9.11. attacks
presents a window through which to study processes of Islamization in the
contemporary aid field.
9
In many ways, 9.11. and the ensuing ‘Global War on
Terror’ came to be determining for the course of transnational Muslim NGOs. A
common assumption is that these events were unequivocally bad for Muslim NGOs.
Suspected of relations with Al Qaeda and other militant Muslim networks, some
organizations were banned, others were subject to harsh restrictions and control, and
most saw their public support and credibility severely wane if not entirely disappear.
However, for some organizations, heralded as moderators and bridge builders, 9.11.
and the Global War on Terror became an opportunity for growth and increased
influence; a trend which was further emphasized by an increasing interest among
many intergovernmental and governmental donor agencies in so-called faith-based
organizations (FBOs). As such, these events brought to light—and perhaps even
accentuated—a number of differences among transnational Muslim NGOs in the
contemporary aid field.
Through micro-sociological case studies of two selected NGOs—the British
organization Islamic Relief and the Saudi Arabian International Islamic Relief
Organization, or IIROSA—this paper explores some of these differences, analyzing
their understanding of ‘Islam’, the ways in which they (don’t) Islamize development
and humanitarian aid, and how this all relates to mainstream development
discourses on FBOs and the Global War on Terror. Thus, the purpose of the
analysis is not to provide a comprehensive mapping of the field of transnational
Muslim NGOs, but to present emblematic examples, or what Flyvbjerg (2006) calls
paradigmatic cases, of different kinds of contemporary transnational Muslim NGOs
and the ways in which they Islamize aid. Paradigmatic cases are, according to
Flyvbjerg (2006, p. 232) cases that highlight more general characteristics of the
societies in question, in this case the group of transnational Muslim NGOs after
9.11. As such, the selected cases are not paradigmatic in the sense of being
8
In line with this understanding of ‘religion’ and ‘Islam’, the present analysis promotes a definition of
Muslim NGOs as those NGOs that constitute themselves with reference to Muslim discourses, i.e. NGOs
that define themselves as Muslim, either by simply referring to Islam in their name, or by explicitly
referring to Islamic traditions, figures or concepts in their activities (see e.g. Benedetti (2006) for a similar
definition). Reliance on self-definitions is not entirely unproblematic, but makes sense in the present
analysis insofar as it focuses on how Muslim NGOs consciously use and promote certain understandings
of ‘Islam’.
9
With ‘aid field’ I refer to actors, structures, discourses and practices concerned with the provision of
development and humanitarian aid. Important actors in the contemporary aid field are intergovernmental
institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the Development Assistance Committee,
governmental donor agencies such as USAID, DfID and GTZ, and large NGOs such as Oxfam, World
Vision, Care, Save the Children and others.
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‘average’ or ‘representative’, but in the sense of containing the most information,
the richest narratives, the broadest range of characteristics.
10
For this purpose, the selection of Islamic Relief and IIROSA seems apt, insofar as
these two organizations represent two ‘typical’ examples of transnational Muslim
NGOs; since 9.11. positioning themselves (and being positioned) in different ways
in the aid field. One has been relegated to the periphery, suffering from decreasing
financial support and suspected by the UN and USA, among others, of links with
terrorist groups, while the other seems to move still closer to the centre, enjoying
increasing financial support and cooperating with DfID, the European Commis-
sion’s department for humanitarian aid (ECHO) and other major development
actors. How do these two organizations understand the nexus between Islam and
aid, and how do their different conceptualizations relate to discourses of mainstream
development and the Global War on Terror? That is what this article seeks to
explore.
Data for the analysis has been collected by way of a three-pronged approach,
inspired by ethnographic, journalistic and micro-sociological methods of data
collection: semi-structured interviews, observations and gathering of material.
11
The
majority of data was collected during field visits to the headquarters and country
offices of the two organisations.
12
The visits were carried out in 2008 and 2009,
each lasting between 1 and 5 weeks, altogether a period of approximately
4 months.
13
During my visits I conducted a total of approximately 100 interviews,
including interviews with headquarter staff in Britain and Saudi Arabia, and country
office staff in Bangladesh, Jordan and Lebanon; as well as background interviews
with representatives from other Muslim NGOs, Christian and secular NGOs,
governmental donor agencies and intergovernmental organisations. Apart from
interviews, I also carried out observations, in particular at project sites but also at
staff meetings and meetings with partner organizations. Finally, I collected
documents about and by the organizations, including, e.g. website information,
project documents, reporting formats, annual reports, brochures, policies, promotion
videos, photos and newspaper articles.
10
Among certain researchers (e.g. Yin 1989), case studies are only found useful insofar as they
contribute to science by representing, or rejecting the general, based on a positivist epistemology with
strict demands for ‘validity’ and ‘scientific value’ (Lind Pedersen 2002, p. 39). Rejecting such attempts to
apply the rules of natural science to social science, Flyvbjerg (2006) argues that social science is instead
about understanding meaning and how it is constructed (see also Stake 1994, p. 236). And for this, case
studies seem particularly apt methods, insofar as they, through their thick descriptions and rich detailed
studies are capable of grasping the complexity of meaning construction in other ways than e.g. more
quantitatively oriented studies (Flyvbjerg 2006, p. 223).
11
The data collected is part of a larger research project for a PhD on ideologies of aid in four
transnational Muslim NGOs, apart from Islamic Relief and IIROSA including the British Muslim Aid and
the Kuwaiti International Islamic Charitable Organization.
12
As a non-Muslim female from a Western country, I had expected at least some animosity on the part of
staff members in IIROSA, but this was not the case. On the contrary, most people expressed appreciation
of my research topic and seemed eager to convey to me what they saw as ‘the true image of Islam’. For a
discussion of fieldwork in the Middle East, see e.g. Clark (2006).
13
This included approx. 4 weeks in Britain, 2 weeks in Kuwait, 2 weeks in Saudi Arabia, 1 week in
Jordan, 1 week in Lebanon, and 5 weeks in Bangladesh.
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The article is structured as follows: The first part of the article gives a brief
history of the emergence of transnational Muslim NGOs, followed in the second
part by a description of the context in which contemporary Muslim NGOs operate,
with a particular focus on recent trends in mainstream development and the Global
War on Terror. The third part of the article presents the case studies of the two
Muslim NGOs, analyzing their different kinds of organizational religiosity and ways
of (not) Islamizing aid as emblematic examples of contemporary Muslim aid.
Finally, the conclusion sums up the main points of the analysis by way of a basic
continuum of organizational religiosity, stretching from an all-encompassing,
visible Islam, closely tied to an Islamized conception of aid, to a compartmental-
ized, almost invisible Islam, promoting a largely secularized notion of aid.
The Emergence of Muslim NGOs
In the last three or four decades, the field of development and humanitarian aid has
seen the emergence of an increasing number of transnational Muslim NGOs
(Yaylaci 2008, p. 13). Naturally, these are not the first institutions of aid provision in
the history of Islam. Although not direct equivalents of contemporary development
aid, traditions of charity (sadaqa) have existed since the birth of Islam, and
historically, zakat and waqf have been important institutions for the redistribution of
wealth in Muslim societies.
14
In contemporary history, however, in particular two
trends have contributed to the emergence of Muslim NGOs. First, the general
increase in transnational NGOs since the Second World War, and second, the
so-called Islamic resurgence,
15
providing (part of) the ideological fabric of which
these organizations are made. More specifically, a number of wars and disasters in
the Muslim world prompted a surge of solidarity among Muslims, encouraging their
involvement in aid provision. Most importantly, the famine in the Horn of Africa in
the beginning of the 1980s led to a wave of Muslim organizations providing food,
medicine, and other kinds of emergency relief to Africa. Islamic Relief, founded in
Britain in 1984, was one of these new organizations; IIROSA was another,
established in Jeddah in 1979. Parallel to the involvement in Africa, Muslim NGOs
increasingly got involved in other areas of the world; especially the war in
Afghanistan, interpreted by many as an attempt by an atheist Soviet to intimidate a
pious Muslim population. Drifting into civil war, the Afghan conflict was later
replaced by the war in Bosnia as the Muslim cause par excellence, leading to
another wave of Muslim NGOs. Financially, the surge of Muslim NGOs was partly
facilitated by the explosion of oil prices in 1979, meaning that huge funds were
suddenly available to Middle Eastern regimes, intergovernmental institutions,
businesses and individual donors (Ghandour 2004, p. 329). Some of this money was
14
For literature on the history of charity in Islam, see Singer (2008).
15
Starting in the mid-twentieth century, the Islamic resurgence denotes a global movement of renewed
interest in Islam as a relevant identity and model for community, manifested in greater religious piety and
Muslim solidarity; in a growing adoption of Muslim culture, dress codes, terminology, and values by
Muslims worldwide; and the introduction of Islamically defined institutions and organizations—such as
the Muslim NGOs (Lapidus 2002, p. 823).
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channeled through Muslim NGOs, in particular the Gulf-based ones. Another flow
of funds had its origin among Muslim immigrants in Europe and North America,
who would pay their zakat to Muslim NGOs.
16
Today, the aid field accommodates around 400 transnational Muslim NGOs out
of a total population of approximately 16,700 transnational NGOs, meaning that
2.4% of all transnational NGOs are Muslim.
17
The majority of these are established
in Europe and North America, in particular Great Britain, while the Gulf countries
have also fostered a large number of organizations. Also, recent years have seen the
emergence of a number of Turkish NGOs. See Table 1 for an overview of some of
the largest Muslim NGOs, their budgets and their country of origin.
18
Muslim NGOs in the Post 9.11. Aid Field
Muslim NGOs and the Global War on Terror
For long, Muslim NGOs were living an almost parallel life in the periphery of the aid
field. Getting most of their funding from Muslim individuals, businesses and
sometimes governments, they did not need European or North American donors; they
cooperated little with UN and other international institutions; and they did not
participate in international forums for NGO cooperation, placing themselves outside
the reach of common mechanisms for control and accountability. Suspicions of
involvement in militant activism would surge from time to time, in particular in
relation to the work of Muslim NGOs in Afghanistan and Bosnia. Here, several NGOs
were suspected of funding militant camps and facilitating logistical support to the
mujahedeen. While US and other governments would initially turn a blind eye to such
relations, seeing the mujahedeen as their ally in the fight against the Communists, this
changed with the end of the Cold War and the shifting political dynamics. The alleged
involvement of a number of Muslim NGOs in the 1993 and 1998 attacks on American
territories—first the World Trade Center and then the US embassies in Kenya and
Tanzania—only strengthened this negative attention to Muslim NGOs, leading to
increased control, arrests of individuals and bans of certain organizations.
The focus on Muslim NGOs, increasingly seen as de facto accomplices in radical
Islamist terrorism, intensified with the 9.11. attacks on the Twin Towers and
Pentagon in 2001. Within a year of the attacks, a number of transnational Muslim
NGOs
19
had been designated by the US government, accused of supporting Al
16
For a more detailed history of transnational Muslim NGOs, see e.g. Bellion-Jourdan (in Feher 2007),
Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan (2003), and Ghandour (in Weissman 2004).
17
Numbers extracted from the online Union of International Associations database (www.uia.be),
accessed in March 2010.
18
As noted by an anonymous reviewer, the analysis of transnational Muslim NGOs, their organizational
forms, history and future development could benefit from more general literature on civil society and
social welfare, inspiring a comparative perspective. Examples of such literature could be, e.g. Enjolras
and Sivesind (2009), Salamon and Anheier (1998), or Kuhnle and Selle (1992).
19
Among others, Al Haramain (based in Saudi Arabia), the Holy Land Foundation (USA), the Global
Relief Foundation (USA) and Benevolence International (Saudi Arabia).
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Qaeda. Several other governments followed suit, banning transnational Muslim
NGOs from working in their territory. In the following years, a wide range of new
laws, policies and regulations were introduced, attempting to prevent and obstruct
NGO involvement in terrorist activities. Some of the most important measures in
what came to be known as the War on Terror have been the so-called designation
lists of organizations and individuals with alleged links to militant Islamist
networks, including Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hizbollah. Today, the US State
Department has designated 31 Muslim NGOs for their relations to Al Qaeda,
Hamas, Hizbollah or other radical Islamist groups; the UN 13 and EU one.
20
Apart
from these lists, governments and intergovernmental organizations have introduced
a number of strategies, policies and regulations, aimed at strengthening financial
accountability and transparency of NGOs. The EU formulated a ‘Framework for a
Code of Conduct for Non-Profit Organizations’ and a ‘Communication on the
Prevention of and Fight against Terrorist Financing through Greater Transparency
of the Non-Profit Sector’; the US Treasury Department introduced their ‘Anti-
Terrorist Financing Guidelines’ for NGOs; and the UK Charity Commission
published a policy on charities and terrorism and a counter-terrorism strategy, to
Table 1 Some of the largest transnational Muslim NGOs and their country of origin
Organization Origin Budget (USD)
a
Islamic Relief UK 60 million
International Islamic Relief Organization Saudi Arabia 47 million
Deniz Feneri Association Turkey 46 million
Saudi Committee for the Relief of Palestinian People Saudi Arabia 40 million
Zayed bin Sultan al Nahayan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation Abu Dhabi 31 million
Qatar Charitable Society Qatar 31 million
Direct Aid/Africa Muslims Agency Kuwait 25 million
International Islamic Charitable Organization Kuwait 20 million
LIFE for Relief and Development USA 18 million
Muslim Aid UK 13 million
EMDAD Iran 12.6 million
Muslim Hands UK 10.6 million
Comite
´
de Bienfaisance et de Secours aux Palestiniens France 8 million
Munazzamat al Da’wa al Islamiya Sudan 6 million
Interpal UK 4.2 million
Aga Khan Foundation which has an annual budget of 320 million is not included, since it considers itself
to be non-denominational
a
All budgets are from the period 2005–2009, except for Direct Aid whose budget is from 1988.
EMDAD’s budget includes only activities in Lebanon, and the total budget is presumably much bigger
20
So far, only one transnational Muslim NGO has been convicted of funding militant Islamist activism—
the Holy Land Foundation, in 2009 convicted for supporting Hamas. In 2003, the CEO of Benevolence
International was convicted of fraud, while the charges against the organization itself were dismissed
(Guinane 2006, p. 11).
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mention some of the most important. Governments in other parts of the world, in
particular the Middle Eastern countries, have also sought to exert tighter control
over the flow of NGO funds in or through their country. In July 2003, for instance,
the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency announced a set of new regulations governing
Saudi aid organizations, banning them from transferring funds abroad without
official approval (Cotterrell and Harmer 2005,p.19).
21
Religious NGOs in the Field of Development and Humanitarian Aid
These ‘hard’ measures to crack down on ‘terrorist’ NGOs have been coupled with
‘softer’ counter-terrorism approaches seeking to encourage cooperation with
Muslim NGOs in order to prevent radicalization (Howell and Lind 2009, p. 47)
and to strengthen relations with potential bridge builders. In this, governmental aid
agencies have played an important role. In particular the British Department for
International Development, DfID, has been active in strengthening cooperation with
Muslim NGOs, and is supporting several organisations financially. In Switzerland,
the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs has established an initiative titled
‘Towards cooperation with Islamic charities in removing unjustified obstacles’, also
known as the Montreux Initiative; and in Germany, the Deutsche Gesellschaft fu
¨
r
Technische Zusammenarbeit, GTZ, has launched a range of projects focusing on
Islam and development aid, including ‘Islam and Development Cooperation in
Africa’, and ‘Instruments of Development Cooperation and Islamic Values in Asia’.
This focus on Muslim NGOs has coincided with a general interest in religious
NGOs among governmental and intergovernmental development agencies. While
religious organizations have historically played an important role in the provision of
aid, their efforts have for many years gone largely unnoticed among mainstream
development agencies.
22
Shaped by narratives of modernization, dominant
conceptions of development have historically been largely secularist, based on an
understanding of religion as a traditional and conservative force, and as such an
obstacle or, at best irrelevant, to development. Ver Beek’s 2000 survey of the
policies of several major development agencies testifies to this, concluding that
none of them had any policies on religion or spirituality, and that they sought to
avoid the topic in programmes and projects. Religion was, he claimed, a
21
This was followed in 2004 by the announcement that a National Commission for Relief and Charity
Work Abroad would be established, overseeing all NGO activities and public donations, and facilitating
greater governmental control over the use of charitable funds (Clarke 2007, p. 84). The commission has
yet to be established.
22
Throughout history, religious organisations such as Catholic hospitals, Islamic foundations, and
Buddhist monasteries, among many others, have provided aid to the poor. For histories of philanthropy
and altruism in the different world religions, see e.g. Neusner and Chilton (2005) and Ilchman, Katz and
Queen (1998). More recently, some of the first transnational NGOs were established by religious
individuals and groups, including, e.g. Oxfam, which was founded by a group of Quakers. Today, many
of the largest development NGOs are religious (e.g. World Vision which has an annual budget of 1.6
billion dollars), while numerous religious associations and community organizations are involved in
social welfare activities locally and nationally. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, the World Bank
estimates that as much as 50% of all health and education services are provided by FBOs (James 2009,
p. 7).
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‘development taboo’ (2000, p. 31). Today, the taboo has been broken (de Kadt
2009). Failures in mainstream aid provision, among other things, have forced
development agencies to look for alternative ways of doing aid—and in this, many
have turned to religious NGOs, or faith-based organizations as they are often called,
seeing them as the new panacea. A number of initiatives testify to this trend, e.g. the
World Bank’s ‘Faiths and Development Dialogue’; the Dutch Knowledge Forum for
Religion and Development Policy established by five NGOs; and the Tony Blair
Foundation’s seminar series ‘Faith and Development’, hosted together with DfID,
Islamic Relief, World Vision and Oxfam.
23
Building on large constituencies and enjoying trust and credibility in local
communities, religious NGOs are expected by development agencies to have a great
potential as promoters of development and humanitarian aid, capable of galvanizing
moral commitment, translating principles of aid into the idioms of faith and
mobilizing popular support for donor initiatives (Clarke 2007, p. 80). In this
perspective, the religious identity of organizations is considered an instrument in the
effective implementation of aid activities, primarily serving as a tool for
communication with constituencies that may otherwise be unreachable. Religious
organizations are expected to reproduce discourses and practices of development
and humanitarian aid, not to introduce entirely new ways of conceptualizing aid,
potentially challenging basic principles of universalism, neutrality and impartiality.
As such, ‘religion’ in the eyes of donors is about ‘values’, ‘language’ and
‘motivation’; not about ‘mission’, ‘worship’ and ‘religious instruction’. This
translates into a preference for quasi-secular organizations whose religiosity is by
and large relegated to the private sphere, serving as personal motivation and
underlying values, but who are able to use their claim to a religious identity as a tool
in the implementation of development and humanitarian aid activities. As such, the
secular distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘aid’ as fundamentally separate categories
is maintained: religion can be a tool in the provision of aid, but it cannot be part of
aid.
To sum up, this is the environment in which contemporary transnational Muslim
NGOs work: Historically, they have been largely invisible in the aid field, getting
funding from individual Muslims, and avoiding European and North American
donors. After 9.11., this parallel life is no longer possible—everybody is watching
the Muslim NGOs, navigating in an environment of increasing regulation and
control, but also with openings for cooperation and funding. This situation has
forced Muslim NGOs to relate to the mainstream aid field, just like it has
strengthened their awareness of their Muslim identity. Different NGOs have reacted
differently to this situation, and as such, 9.11. has displayed and perhaps also
accentuated a number of differences among transnational Muslim NGOs. Some
have withdrawn or have been pushed to the periphery, isolated from mainstream
development actors, while others move still closer to the centre, cooperating closely
with other actors in the field.
23
The increasing interest has also manifested itself in various research projects and programmes,
including the Berkeley Center’s ‘Religion and Global Development Programme’; and Birmingham
University’s DfID-funded ‘Research Programme on Religions and Development’.
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These differences are perhaps expressed most clearly in the differences between
two of the largest Muslim NGOs in the contemporary aid field—the British
organization Islamic Relief and the Saudi-based IIROSA. Since 9.11., Islamic
Relief has experienced a steady growth in terms of budgets, number of staff and
activities. The organization receives funding from a number of institutional donors,
including DfID, ECHO and a number of UN agencies, and has partnerships with a
wide range of development NGOs such as Christian Aid and Oxfam. IIROSA, on
the other hand, has experienced a decline in terms of funding and popular support, it
has few relations with institutional donors and does not cooperate with many
mainstream development NGOs.
There are of course several reasons for these differences in positioning. For one,
the two NGOs operate in very different political contexts, as hinted at above. In
Britain, for instance, government institutions such as DfID and the Charity
Commission, responsible for NGO regulation, have prioritized cooperation with
(certain) Muslim NGOs, facilitating their growth and inclusion into the mainstream
development field. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, NGOs operate in an
environment of strict, albeit often arbitrary, governmental control and repression,
making transnational cooperation increasingly difficult. But the geographical origins
of the two organizations may also influence their position in the aid field in other
ways. Historically, the field of development and humanitarian aid has been
dominated by Western actors (Donini and Minear 2007), while, e.g. Gulf-based
actors have been largely absent. In 2004, for example, 42% of reported global aid
came from the EU, and 36% from the USA (de Cordier 2009a, p. 671). Likewise,
the largest transnational NGOs, including, e.g. Oxfam, World Vision and CARE, all
have their origins in Western countries (Cooley and Ron 2002). And even
international organizations such as the UN and the World Bank display a certain
Western bias, funded primarily by Western states. In this perspective, it may be far
easier for British Muslim NGOs than for Saudi NGOs to enter the aid field, insofar
as they are geographically closer to its main actors. Finally, and related to this, the
two organizations have emerged in and are shaped by different cultural contexts. In
Britain, the UN, DfID, Oxfam and other key actors in the aid field enjoy great
legitimacy and status; but in Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, many people are
skeptical of these actors, preferring instead cooperation with the Muslim World
League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Islamic
Development Bank.
While not in any way seeking to diminish the importance of such factors, this
article argues that the religious identity of the two organizations also plays a role in
determining their position in the aid field. According to people in IIROSA, for
instance, the War on Terror has been a war on Islam, and by extension a war on all
Muslim NGOs: ‘After 9.11., there have been huge campaigns against Islamic
charities’, one person says. ‘These problems have made it difficult for us’. As such,
he—and others with him—attributes the decline of the organization to its Muslim
identity. Staff members in Islamic Relief, on the other hand, often attribute the
growth of their organization to its Muslim identity: ‘Because it’s Muslim, Islamic
Relief enjoys greater access to funding. It’s included everywhere, people listen, they
have access to the government. In these times, people want to be seen to be
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involving Islam’, one person says. But what is ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ about the two
organizations? How do they Islamize aid? And why are some ways of Islamizing aid
more popular with institutional donors than others? Analyzing discourses and
practices on Islam and aid in Islamic Relief and IIROSA, the following case studies
seeks to explore these questions, providing emblematic examples of organizational
religiosity and conceptions of aid in contemporary Muslim NGOs.
International Islamic Relief Organization: ‘It’s all in Islam!’
Established in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1979, IIROSA is the oldest of the two
organizations—and one of the oldest transnational Muslim NGOs in the world. The
IIROSA is formally part of the Muslim World League whose secretary general is the
chairman of the IIROSA General Assembly. IIROSA has its headquarters in Jeddah,
Saudi Arabia, with fundraising offices all over the country. IIROSA has activities in
95 countries, with the largest programmes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan,
Nigeria, and Somalia. 2,000 people work in the organization, of these 1,000 abroad.
The organization’s work includes orphan sponsorship, mosque construction, well
digging, education, health care and emergency relief.
The IIROSA used to be one of the biggest and most influential Muslim
organizations. In the 1990s, it had more than 80 country offices all over the world—
even in Latin America—and a budget close to 100 million USD. Since then, the
budget has been halved, and several country offices and programmes have been
closed. The main reason for this downfall is the persistent suspicions of links with
Al Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups, leading to severe restrictions on the
organization’s activities. These suspicions have surrounded the organization since
its early years, in particular in relation to its activities in Afghanistan and Bosnia,
where the organization was suspected of supporting the mujahedeen. Later, the
IIROSA was suspected of involvement in the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in
Kenya and Tanzania, leading to the ban of the organization by the Kenyan
government. And in 2001, the IIROSA was accused of financing the instigators of
the 9.11. attacks.
24
In 2006, the Philippines and Indonesia branches were designated
by the US—and later UN—on the grounds that they were ‘facilitating fundraising
for al Qaida and affiliated terrorist groups’.
25
At the same time, the IIROSA has
been subject to increasing control by its own government. The organization has, in
other words, been subject to a wide range of ‘hard measures’ in the name of the War
on Terror, leading to its deterioration and isolation.
24
In August 2002, the organization was, together with seven other NGOs, seven international banks, the
Sudanese government and a number of individuals, sued by a group of families of the 9.11. victims
(Saudia Online 19.08.2002, cf. Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada 2003). The case is still
ongoing.
25
The director of the Philippines office, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, is the brother-in-law of Osama bin
Laden and was considered by the US to be a senior Al Qaeda member. The Indonesia office was accused,
among other things, of financing the establishment of training facilities for use by al Qaida associates (US
Department of the Treasury 2006).
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The purpose of the present article is not to determine whether this treatment is
justified or not (to date, the organization has not been convicted of any crimes), but
rather to explore the IIROSA as an example of a particular kind of Muslim NGO
with a particular organizational religiosity and a particular conception of aid. In the
following, we shall analyse the IIROSA’s Islamization of aid, based on an
exploration of organizational discourses, practices, community and structures, and
discuss the relation between this and their position in the field of mainstream
development aid. The analysis identifies two, complementary, understandings of the
nexus between Islam and aid, each in different ways influencing the position of the
IIROSA vis-a
`
-vis the aid field. First, the IIROSA promotes an understanding of
Islam as pervasive and relevant to all spheres of human life, influencing all aspects
of aid provision—what we may call an all-encompassing Islam. Second, the
organization and its staff interpret the War on Terror as a war between Islam and the
West; a war in which Muslim NGOs have become victims.
An All-Encompassing Islam
In IIROSA, Islam and aid are intimately intertwined. Aid is not only about building
wells, distributing medicine or teaching children to read and write—it is also about
building a mosque, preaching, and teaching children to memorize the Qur’an.
Likewise, Islam is not just about praying, going to the mosque and dressing the right
way—it is also about education, social welfare services and relief. As a staff
member says: ‘Islam is not just about the spiritual, it is about the spiritual and social
matters’. As such, the Islam promoted by the IIROSA is an all-encompassing and
pervasive Islam, strongly embedded in all spheres of organizational life.
Muslim practices and discourses are very visible internally in the organization.
People pray together, dress according to religious precepts, and the language used
among staff is full of Muslim terms and phrases. Relations between men and women
are defined by conservative Muslim ideals, sometimes resulting in gender
segregation. In the headquarters in Jeddah, for instance, the women’s department
is in a different part of town. Female staff rarely enters the main building but mostly
communicate with male staff through e-mail, phone or Messenger. Also, men and
women attend to different functions in the organization. Women primarily work in
fund-raising, teaching, nursing and other activities deemed suitable for a Muslim
woman, while men work in management, project implementation and the like. Islam
also plays an important role as motivational factor: ‘We feel joy when we help
people’, a woman tells me. ‘It’s part of Islam. We thank God when we give money
to the poor’.
Islam shapes the language of the organization, and the provision of aid is
explained and legitimated with reference to Muslim traditions and concepts such as
zakat, sadaqa and hadiths rather than the Millennium Development Goals, the
Universal Human Rights Declaration or the Human Development Index. As stated
in a recent report of the organization (IIROSA 2006, p. 8):
IIROSA drives inspiration from the blessed land of the Two Holy Mosques,
adopting the prophetic guidance in relieving the distressed, helping the needy
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and consoling the grieved. It strives to provide food for the hungry, medical
care for the sick, clothes for the unclothed, helps wipe tears of the orphans,
provides shelter, social and educational care for those who have lost their
homes due to wars or natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods and
drought [] Allah Almighty said in His Holy Scripture: {And they feed for
the love of God, the indignant, the orphan and the captive (Saying), ‘‘We feed
you for the sake of God alone: No reward do we desire from you. Nor thanks}
(Verses 8 & 9, Sura 76/Holy Qur’an).
26
This conception of Islam is reflected in the organizational structures and
activities. Islam is not restricted to a specific ‘Islamic’ department or ‘Islamic’
projects, but influences and shapes all sectors of the organization’s work. This is
very visible and concrete in the Engineering Department, responsible for building
and maintaining mosques, and in the Holy Qur’an and Dawa Programme, offering
Qur’an memorization courses; but practices of aid and religion also merge—albeit
in more intangible and indirect ways—in the programmes for emergency relief,
social welfare and health care. The Emergency Relief Programme, for instance,
distributed 100 tons dates to tsunami victims and poor people in Sri Lanka during
Ramadan last year, combining Muslim traditions of handing out dates during
Ramadan with requirements for distribution of food during emergencies. And in
Kenya, the IIROSA’s ‘Collective Marriage Project’ recently funded the marriage of
108 young couples who could not afford to get married otherwise.
A third example is the Social Welfare Programme, offering financial support,
education, medicine and basic necessities to almost 100,000 orphans all over the
world with a budget of almost 15.5 million USD. ‘The Prophet Muhammad himself
was an orphan and he said that whoever took care of an orphan would be like this
with him in heaven’, people tell me, illustrating the closeness between the sponsor
and the prophet by holding together two fingers. ‘That’s why we have this
programme’. The purpose of the programme is to provide the orphans ‘with
comprehensive care including food, medical care, social care, religious care’
(IIROSA 2006, p. 18). And the religious care is as important as other kinds of
care—this is reflected, among other things, in the annual evaluation of the child’s
welfare, sent to the child’s sponsor. Here, staff members list information as to the
religiosity of the child, his/her ability to memorise the Qur’an (and if so what parts
of the Qur’an), the name of the Qur’an centre he/she goes to, along with information
as to his/her health situation, education and hobbies. Through lectures, sports and
creative activities, IIROSA staff teaches the children about topics such as social
skills and good manners, health and hygiene, praying and fasting—‘and it’s all in
Islam’, I am told. A staff member of the orphans programme explains: ‘We show the
orphans what Islam is like in an indirect manner, through our examples, through the
way we do things’. Through this lifestyle evangelism (Bornstein 2003), IIROSA
staff seeks to ‘build good people’. ‘We teach them how to deal with other people’,
the staff member says, adding: ‘For me, it’s about showing the children that Islam is
not just about praying and going to the mosque, it is about dealing with people in a
26
Original punctuation and spelling has been maintained.
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good way’. As such, notions of Islamic education (tarbiya) and mission (da’wa) are
thoroughly integrated into the organization’s aid provision.
According to some staff, IIROSA’s understanding of aid is different from the way
many other (non-Muslim) organizations understand it: ‘Compared to other organi-
zations, we have a different way of dealing with people. We make people feel the
importance of their existence. People can contribute to building society, they are
special. The poor are not just somebody you can treat like you want to. They deserve
respect’. This difference is explained by reference to Islam: ‘We take this from a
hadith by al Hakim, it says that you can’t buy people with your money. You have to
deal with them in a respectful way, with good manners and a smile’. Others mention
the Muslim tradition of making sure that the person receiving the money has the
upper hand as a symbol of the uniqueness of Muslim organizations: ‘The recipient
should not have the lower hand. We care about these details, this is important to us’.
Other organizations are different—their employees do not care about the work or the
beneficiaries: ‘They don’t have the same feeling of family as we have, that the
orphans are a part of our family, that it’s about humanity, family, about making the
orphans feel important. For them, it’s routine, it’s just a job they need to do, it’s about
finishing work to get home to your own family’. As such, IIROSA staff constructs a
dichotomy between Muslim aid which is warm, caring and personal, and non-
Muslim aid which is characterized by greed, efficiency and distance.
Thus, in IIROSA we find an Islamization of almost all aspects of aid: a religion
that provides the dominant basis for organizational engagement, presenting an
important and explicit motivation for the provision of aid and in mobilizing staff, as
well as shaping the concrete ways in which aid provision is carried out. This
understanding of aid and religion as intertwined and inseparable clashes with
European and North American donors’ and NGOs’ understanding of religion and
aid as fundamentally distinct categories, as noted above. In this perspective,
IIROSA’s pervasive and all-encompassing Islam, embedded in and inseparable
from the organization’s aid practices, blocks for cooperation with mainstream
donors and integration into the aid field.
Islam and the West
Another aspect of IIROSA’s Islamization of aid, influencing its position in the
mainstream aid field, has to do with the organization’s reading of the Global War on
Terror. Instead of expounding the War on Terror as a legitimate attempt to contain
militant Islamist activism, the IIROSA sees it as a continuation of a global conflict
between ‘the Muslim world’ and ‘the West,’ more specifically the US. This is a
common perception that has roots far back in history, but in recent years it has been
nourished by events such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the boycott of
the democratically elected Hamas in Palestine, seen by many people as displaying
the hypocrisy and imperialism of the US, and by extension, the West.
27
In their
27
In particular the war in Afghanistan is seen as a turning point in the relations with the US. In the 1980s,
many young Saudis travelled to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahedeen. During this time, the IIROSA
allegedly provided the mujahedeen with logistical support, and perhaps even financed training camps.
Eager to build alliances in their fight against the Soviet, US and Saudi governments would, indirectly or
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eyes, ‘the West’ is not only, or even primarily, about freedom, democracy and
human rights, but also about UAVs killing civilians, waterboarding and unjust court
cases. And Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and Taleban are not simply terrorists, but
freedom fighters who stand up against ‘the West’. Staff members of IIROSA do not
necessarily condone the means of such militant activists, but they do not condemn
them either. ‘Lots of people think Bin Laden is a hero, not necessarily because they
agree with him, but because he stood up against the USA’, a staff member says,
expressing what many others have hinted at and reflecting popular opinion in Saudi
Arabia (Hegghammer 2010). ‘The Taleban are just freedom fights who don’t want
the US in their country’, another person says. ‘If there was a free election in
Afghanistan, I am sure they would win. I don’t agree with them, I think they are
retarded and uneducated, but I think that if you gave them education and financial
help, they could change. And you have to remember that they have done some good
things’.
In this perspective, the increasing control, restrictions and designations of
Muslim NGOs are not seen as legitimate measures to ensure greater transparency of
financial transactions, thus preventing certain organizations from supporting
terrorism, but as illegitimate attempts at destroying innocent organizations as part
of the West’s continued war against Islam. As one staff member says: ‘After [9.11.],
they wanted to crush the backbone of the Muslim world and they thought the most
obvious was the charity organizations’. Underlining the unity of Muslim NGOs, the
organization rejects the Global War on Terror’s distinction between ‘moderate’ and
‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’ Muslim NGOs, employing instead a dichotomy between
‘Muslim NGOs’ and ‘the US government’. In an IIROSA Bulletin, published
shortly after the ban of the IIROSA branches in the Philippines and Indonesia in
2006, Adnan Khalil Basha, Secretary General of the IIROSA, scorns the US
government, claiming that ‘[t]hese actions are aimed at preventing Muslim relief
activities around the world’ (IIROSA 2007).
Further underlining the cruelty of the US authorities, people often emphasize the
consequences of the War on Terror, directing attention to ways in which the
ultimate costs of anti-measures are often borne by the poor (Kroessin 2007). In this,
children play an important role, functioning as universal symbols of innocence and
purity (Bornstein 2003). ‘The orphans were crying’, a person says, telling me about
the Bangladeshi government’s recent closing-down of a number of orphanages in
Bangladesh (allegedly following pressure from the US government), which left
more than 9,000 children without assistance. ‘We used to provide them with
everything—food, school bags, medicine, clothing. And suddenly we cannot help
them anymore. You feel very sad because of that’. Referring to common accusations
of IIROSA support to families of alleged ‘terrorists’, a former board member notes:
‘Now if some orphan’s family was killed because he was a terrorist, what should we
Footnote 27 continued
directly, encourage this support to the mujahedeen, or the ‘freedom fighters’, as they called them
(Hegghammer 2010). With the end of the war and the change of political tides, however, both the US and
Saudi governments changed their attitudes towards the mujahedeen and the people having supported
them. Many were arrested, and in IIROSA, the Secretary General was replaced in 1993 with a govern-
ment sympathizer, presumably because of his relations with the mujahedeen.
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do? Should we not support the child regardless of what his father did, even if we
have different ideologies?’
Finally, people often refer to the lack of evidence and documentation as
examples of US hypocrisy. In a recent number of the organization’s bulletin, the
Secretary General says that he has repeatedly asked the US administration for proof
of their allegations: ‘I am confident of the innocence of the organization. Despite
eight years before the courts not a single incriminating piece of evidence was
presented against IIROSA except a heap of press clippings that prove nothing’
(IIROSA 2010). Even the designation of the Philippine branch is rejected as
illegitimate—the office was actually closed years before these allegations were
made, the Secretary General states.
The IIROSA underlines the need for Muslim NGOs to maintain organizational
stamina and keep working for the poor in this ‘unjust epoch’ (IIROSA 2009) rather
than succumb to the hypocritical, cruel and erratic allegations of the US. In an annual
report, IIROSA states that the organization ‘has strived to relieve refugees, internally
displaced persons and victims of various disasters in spite of the unfavourable world
atmosphere and its negative impact on charity work’ (IIROSA 2006, p. 14). In a
similar vein, an editorial in a recent newsletter underlines that ‘IIROSA has []
remained steadfast despite the unfounded allegations that were launched incessantly
by the former American Administration for the past eight years’ (IIROSA 2009).
And in this, the organization has the support of many people, including governments.
As a former volunteer notes, rejecting the relevance of the Global War on Terror
terminology: ‘Many governments said okay, the organization has been designated,
but to the best of our knowledge, this organization has built so and so many hospitals,
schools, orphanages—so we appreciate this kind of terrorism’.
Thus, the Global War on Terror is not interpreted as a war between ‘the free
world’ and ‘the terrorists’ and the measures against certain Muslim NGOs are not
seen as a way to contain terrorism. Instead, this is a conflict, instigated by the West
(more specifically, the US), in which all Muslim NGOs have become victims. In this
perspective, cooperation and solidarity among Muslims becomes important. ‘We are
like branches of the same tree’, one person says, referring to fellow Muslim
organizations. This emphasis on Muslim unity is reflected in the organization’s
choice of partners. Rather than participating in broad international coalitions and
umbrella organizations, often seen as having a Western bias, the IIROSA seems to
prefer participation in Islamically defined associations and umbrella organizations.
Thus, the organization is not part of the Humanitarian Forum, consisting of Muslim
and non-Muslim organizations and explicitly aimed at promoting dialogue and
cooperation in the field of development and humanitarian aid. Instead, it is a
founding member of the Friends of Charities Association, consisting of five Saudi
NGOs and concerned primarily with ‘clarify[ing] misconceptions about charities’.
28
Furthermore, the IIROSA is a member of the International Islamic Council for
Dawa and Relief in Egypt and the Union of Non-Government Organizations in the
Muslim World, and enjoys observer status in the Organization of Islamic
Conference (OIC). Likewise, the IIROSA primarily gets its funding from Muslim
28
http://www.foca.net/Objectives.shtml (accessed November 2010).
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123
sources. The majority of funding comes from individual Muslims, often wealthy
businessmen and members of the royal family, who pay their obligatory religious
tax, zakat, or voluntary alms, sadaqa, to the organization. Other sources of income
include donations and investments from businesses as well as grants from the OIC’s
Solidarity Fund and the Islamic Development Bank,
29
while donors such as the
World Bank, UN or Western governmental aid agencies are largely absent, placing
the organization at the margins of the mainstream development field.
Islamic Relief: ‘What’s so Islamic About Us?’
Islamic Relief was established by Egyptian immigrants in Birmingham, Britain in
1984. The organization employs 1,500 staff, has fundraising offices in 13 countries
and works in 26 countries, with Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon and Palestine as the
largest programmes. Activities include microfinance programmes, education, health
and nutrition, orphan sponsorships, water and sanitation, emergency relief and
seasonal projects such as Qurbani sacrifices and Ramadan food packages.
Emergency relief is the biggest programme, followed by the orphan sponsorship
programme and the seasonal projects. Since 9.11., Islamic Relief has experienced a
rapid growth and is today the biggest transnational Muslim organization in the
world. The sharp increase in budget testifies to the popularity of the organization:
10 years ago, Islamic Relief had a budget of less than 15 million USD, but today it
is 60 million USD. Much of this money comes from institutional donors such as
DfID, ECHO and various UN agencies, all praising Islamic Relief for the efficiency
and quality of its aid provision. Other, more anecdotal, evidence of the
organization’s status include its close relations with the British royal family:
Islamic Relief was the first organization Prince Charles visited after 9.11, and he
was a guest of honour at the gala dinner held in December 2009 to celebrate the
organization’s 25 years anniversary. In the following, we shall take a closer look at
Islamic Relief, exploring the ways in which the organization understands Islam and
aid. Here, especially three discourses play a role in shaping the religious identity of
the organization—what we may call A compartmentalized Islam; Moderates and
fundamentalists; and The ‘added value’ of religion.
A compartmentalized Islam
Unlike IIROSA, the primary language of Islamic Relief is that of mainstream
development and humanitarian aid. Core principles of the organization are
neutrality, universalism and impartiality. As stated in a recent annual report
(Islamic Relief 2008, p. 2): ‘We provide help where it is needed most and wherever
we are best placed to assist. We do this regardless of race, colour, political
affiliation, gender or belief and without expecting anything in return’. Mainstream
development discourses also shape the actual work of the organization. It is all
29
The Muslim tradition of waqf is another way of ensuring a stable income—the IIROSA has seven waqf
buildings in Mekka and has plans to build more, hoping to cover one-third of the annual budget.
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about ‘poverty reduction’, ‘empowerment’, ‘rights-based approaches’, and the
Millennium Development Goals. Continuing the statement above (Islamic Relief
2008, p. 2):
We work to mitigate the effects of disasters, preparing for their occurrence
where possible and responding with emergency relief and rehabilitation. We
promote sustainable development through our work in the sectors of
education, health, and nutrition, water and sanitation, and livelihood. We
also advocate on behalf of the poor. We hope to contribute to achieving the
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) through raising awareness of the
issues that affect poor communities and through our work on the ground.
In this work, Islamic Relief is, in its own words, ‘inspired by Islamic
humanitarian values’ (Islamic Relief 2008, p. 2). Thus, Islam is not, as in IIROSA,
all-encompassing, visible and pervasive, influencing all aspects of the organiza-
tion’s work; instead, Islam is relegated to the intangible sphere of values. But not
even there does Islam have priority over humanitarian and development values.
Instead, the ‘Islamic humanitarian values’ that the organization builds its work upon
are defined by and adjusted to the values of mainstream development and
humanitarian aid: ‘Our work is guided and shaped by the core values of
accountability, humanitarianism, neutrality and impartiality, inclusiveness, integrity
and co-operation, all of which are also integral to the Islamic faith’, the chairman of
Islamic Relief, Samir Zahir, states in his foreword to the organization’s strategy
(Islamic Relief 2007, p. 1). One staff member explains this to me, echoing the
statements of several others:
We don’t want to distinguish ourselves as Islamic, the humanitarian principles
that we base our work on, are universal. We don’t need to raise the Islamic flag
when we do humanitarian work, we don’t need to say that we are more
humanitarian because we are Islamic. There’s no difference between universal
humanitarianism and Islamic humanitarianism.
In the concrete implementation of activities, Islam does not seem to play a role:
‘What makes this organization Islamic? The name!’ one person jokes.
30
‘When we
work, we don’t go to the Qur’an to see what to do. We work from a development
perspective’, says a project manager, responsible for a water and sanitation project
in Bangladesh. Or as another staff member puts it: ‘In the day-to-day programmes,
there is no influence by Islamic principles. There’s more of an echo of Western
principles and donor wishes’. Islamic Relief explicitly dissociates itself from
missionary activities, rejecting traditions of mixing da’va and aid: ‘Our main
objective is to provide an input to beneficiaries—what they are doing in relation to
Allah, to their God, that’s their own business, that’s not really our business’, I am
told. Likewise, Muslim principles do not influence the choice of beneficiaries. The
orphan sponsorship programme includes Christian children and donors; several
recipients of microfinance loans are Hindus; even Ramadan food packages are
30
This is the opinion of one staff member, and for many others, the religiosity of the organisation is
much more that just a name.
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123
distributed to non-Muslims. A staff member tells me: ‘We tell people that we have
come to work for them, whether they are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, it doesn’t matter
to us. The important thing is that you are a human being’. As such, Islamic Relief
promotes an almost invisible Islam, sharply dissociated from development and
humanitarian activities. The few specifically religious activities that Islamic Relief
does engage in—primarily slaughtering of Qurbani meat for Eid al-Adha and
distribution of food packages during Ramadan—are seen as fundamentally different
from activities such as emergency relief, microfinance and education, underlining an
understanding of religion and aid as two separate categories.
At least on the surface, this almost invisible Islam is also found internally among
Islamic Relief staff, in particular in country offices and among project managers in
the headquarters. Many people say that religion may have motivated them to work
in Islamic Relief, but ultimately religion is one’s own business: ‘I personally believe
that what you believe is something internal to you’, a young woman tells me. There
is no religious dress code in the organization—while many women wear headscarf,
others do not, just like only some men are bearded. ‘When I first started working
here, I didn’t know what to expect’, a staff member in one of Islamic Relief’s
country offices tells me. ‘I thought I was going to meet all these religious people,
mawlana-style, with long beards. But then I met the country director, he was all
smart and relaxed, wearing a t-shirt. So it’s not like that at all’. This does not mean
that there are no religious practices among staff. Most people call each other
‘brother’ and ‘sister’, and they greet each other with religious greetings. Many
people pray in the organization’s prayer room, people organize religious talks and a
group of converts meet weekly to discuss religious issues. But these religious
practices are presented as separate from other organizational practices, and it is
constantly underlined that there is never a pressure to participate: ‘We don’t
pressure staff or students to believe or pray’, says the director of one of Islamic
Relief’s technical schools in Bangladesh. ‘Some staff members pray, just like some
students pray, and others don’t’. As such, the religiosity found among staff is not an
institutionalized religiosity, but an informal religiosity, by and large confined to the
spheres of personal motivation and practices.
Thus, in Islamic Relief, the discourse of development and humanitarian aid is the
main language. Islam is presented as largely invisible and sharply divided from the
organization’s aid activities, primarily relevant in relation to personal motivation and
organizational values, and always subsidiary to broader humanitarian and develop-
ment principles. The promotion of this compartmentalized, almost secular kind of
Islam, coupled with mainstream aid discourses, facilitates inclusion into the field of
development and humanitarian aid. The field can accommodate this kind of religion,
because it does not question the fundamentally secularist assumptions of develop-
ment and humanitarian aid, but builds on the distinction between aid and religion.
Moderates and Fundamentalists
Further strengthening the organization’s integration into mainstream development
aid and opening up for cooperation with donors is Islamic Relief’s adoption of a
discourse on ‘moderate and ‘fundamentalist’ Muslim NGOs, echoing and building
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on the Global War on Terror discourse which is prevalent among donor agencies,
media, and politicians. There are several signs that Islamic Relief—unlike
IIROSA—has accepted and incorporated this discourse, acknowledging the
premises upon which it is founded and using the channels and tools that this
discourse provides. Unlike IIROSA, Islamic Relief acknowledges the existence of
‘Islamist terrorists’ and, by extension, the necessity and legitimacy of the ‘War on
Terror’ and the various measures to prevent Muslim NGOs from getting involved
with ‘Islamist terrorism’.
31
This is reflected in different organizational practices. For
instance, all Islamic Relief’s partner organizations have to sign a statement saying
that they have no links with terrorism. Likewise, Islamic Relief has taken several
precautions to avoid misuse of funds, including membership of the Humanitarian
Accountability Partnership, and the implementation of internal audit mechanisms.
Finally, Islamic Relief has gone out of its way to distance itself from organizations
associated with terrorism. For instance, in order to clarify confusions regarding the
IIROSA and Islamic Relief, the CEO of Islamic Relief wrote a now famous letter to
US Treasury, explaining the differences between the two organizations.
The adoption of the Global War on Terror discourse and the moderate/
fundamentalist divide is expressed in a dichotomy between Middle Eastern Muslim
NGOs (such as IIROSA), and Western Muslim NGOs (such as Islamic Relief itself).
Thus, unlike in IIROSA, staff members in Islamic Relief do not necessarily consider
all Muslim NGOs to be on the same side. According to many people, Middle
Eastern NGOs do a valuable job helping the poor, but they are also are missionary
and discriminatory, presenting a ‘strict’, ‘fundamentalist’ and sometimes ‘extremist’
image of Islam.
32
Western NGOs, on the other hand, are ‘neutral’, ‘universalist’,
and ‘tolerant’, promoting a ‘moderate’ image of Islam: ‘We will present Islam with
a better image. We need another face, we need to represent Islam from a different
side’, says a staff member. Introducing a dichotomy between charity and
development, Islamic Relief combines the dichotomy between moderates and
fundamentalists with discourses on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ development. While ‘moder-
ate’ Muslim NGOs, together with other transnational NGOs such as Oxfam and
CARE, are engaged in ‘sustainable development’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘capacity
building’, the work of ‘strict or ‘fundamentalist’ Muslim NGOs is ‘traditional
charity’ and ‘hand-outs’: ‘The classical way of doing charity is about building a
mosque, digging a well, distributing sewing machines’, one person explains. ‘This is
fine, it is helpful. But in Islamic Relief, we have decided not to build mosques. We
find that funds can be used to something more important such as reducing poverty,
building capacity’. Or as another staff member puts it: ‘The Middle Eastern NGOs
are very narrow-minded in their approach. Its only relief, only about Qurbani,
distribution of food, those kinds of things. We do that as well, of course, but only as
a small part of our programme. Our main focus is development’.
31
However, this does not mean that the organisation and its staff is not critical of many of the concrete
measures taken by, e.g. the Bush administration.
32
Whether these perceptions are true or not is beside the point. What is important is that many staff
members consider the distinction between Western and Middle Eastern NGOs to be relevant and
important.
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According to staff in Islamic Relief, ‘good’ development is not only about
sustainability, it is also about transparency, accountability and professionalism;
something which is not always found in the Middle Eastern NGOs. As one person
says: ‘They are perhaps not the most sophisticated, they don’t use LogFrame and all
these things’. Others tell me that their organizational set-up is not professional and
that certain NGOs have had problems with corruption. Some people connect this
lack of professionalism with the role of religion in the organizations: ‘The [Middle
Eastern NGOs] are led by religious people—not development professionals. They
are good people, but they don’t know’. As such, the moderate/fundamentalist
dichotomy comes to mirror the distinction between development and charity,
introducing a relation between secular religiosity and development on one hand, and
pervasive religiosity and charity on the other. A pervasive, visible religiosity is not
only seen as a sign of religious ‘fundamentalism’ and potentially ‘extremism’ but
also a sign of bad aid, making it irreconcilable with full integration into mainstream
politics of aid.
As a moderate NGO involved in ‘development’ rather than ‘charity’, staff
consider Islamic Relief to be closer to other transnational NGOs involved in
‘development’ than to fellow Muslim NGOs, the majority of whom are involved in
‘charity’. In other words, while IIROSA distinguished between Muslim and Western
NGOs, preferring cooperation with Muslim NGOs, for Islamic Relief the most
relevant dividing line is between Western and Middle Eastern organizations, or
between ‘charity’ and ‘development’. In this perspective, the most obvious
cooperation partners and donors for Islamic Relief are not necessarily the IIROSA
or other Islamically defined organizations, but other transnational NGOs involved in
‘development’. This difference from IIROSA is reflected in Islamic Relief’s public
promotion of partners and donors. Even though the organization cooperates with
Muslim organizations such as the Kuwaiti International Islamic Charitable
Organization and the OIC, the partners promoted most heavily on the organization’s
website and in publications are secular, Christian and Western organizations such as
Oxfam, Christian Aid, ECHO and UN agencies, testifying to the organization’s
central position in the aid field.
The ‘Added Value’ of Religion
Islamic Relief’s almost secular religiosity and its rejection of the dichotomy
between ‘Muslim and ‘Western’ does not necessarily mean that the distinction
between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ is not relevant in the organization. Although
Islamic Relief may feel closer to Oxfam than IIROSA, there is still a difference
between Oxfam and Islamic Relief—and this difference has to do with religion.
Without the distinction between religious and secular NGOs, Islamic Relief would
loose its trademark and ‘added value’ for the institutional donors, always on the
look-out for ‘moderate’ FBOs to support. As such, Islamic Relief has to promote
those religious aspects that are acceptable—and preferably even useful—to the
donors. At the same time, individual donors of Islamic Relief also expect a certain
touch of religion in organizational activities. Many of them are conservative
Muslims, preferring to pay their donations to a Muslim organization rather than to a
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secular NGO. If the organization does not have their support, it will not only loose a
large part of its funding, it will also loose its claim to religious legitimacy. As such,
Islamic Relief constantly has to make sure that the organization is ‘religious
enough’ to satisfy individual donor expectations.
Thus, as a ‘moderate’ Muslim organization, Islamic Relief has to promote a
secular, almost invisible Islam, and at the same time, underline the strengths and
unique qualities of being a Muslim organization—but in a way that does not corrupt
the values and principles of mainstream development. In this perspective, Islamic
Relief has to be bilingual, mastering the languages of both development and Islam.
This bilingual balance is not straight-forward or easy—sometimes the organization
succeeds, and other times it does not. The orphan sponsorship programme is one
example of a successful integration of individual donors’ religiously motivated
wishes for orphan sponsorships, and institutional donors’ requirements for
sustainable development and capacity-building. Staff members themselves are fully
aware that in itself the orphan sponsorship programme cannot be characterized as
‘sustainable development’: ‘In my opinion, the sponsorship programme does not
contribute to development in the sense of teaching people to fish. It just gives people
a fish’, one person says. But instead of cancelling the programme, upsetting
thousands of sponsors, the organization tries to combine it with education and
vocational training for the children, teaching them about human rights, HIV/AIDS,
gender equality and other mainstream development topics, thus satisfying both
religious and institutional donors. In a similar way, religious activities such as
Ramadan food packages and Qurbani sacrifices are ‘developmentalised’. Through
these religious activities, the organization satisfies their religious donors need to
‘share the happiness of Eid with the poor people’, as one person explains to me. But
at the same time, such ‘charitable’ activities conflict with organizational ideas of
‘sustainable development’. In order to overcome this schism, these activities are
justified with reference to their function as tools for promoting Islamic Relief and
introducing activities such as microfinance and health programmes to new areas. A
third example is the organization’s attitude to zakat: ‘We support both Muslims and
non-Muslims, we interpret the verses in the Qur’an like that. But practically, we
work primarily in Muslim areas and zakat is only 3–4 million out of our 40 million
budget, so we can tell people that their zakat money goes to Muslims if that’s what
they want’, a senior staff member tells me, neatly expressing the organization’s
pragmatic way of dealing with mainstream development’s demands for universalist
inclusion and religious donors’ demands for religiously defined particularism.
While the above examples all testify to a successful integration of religious
traditions and secular development discourses, they do not satisfy donors’ requests
for an ‘added value’ of Muslim NGOs, as compared with secular NGOs. An
example of this is the organization’s microfinance programme. Simultaneously
integrating demands for secular development activities, religious principles and
‘added value’, this programme is constantly promoted as an example of the
particular Islamicness of Islamic Relief. Staff members underline the strengths of
the microfinance programme, pointing out that unlike other organizations, Islamic
Relief has an almost 100% pay-back rate. The success of the programme is ascribed
to a specific Islamic approach: ‘We don’t charge interests, we don’t give them cash.
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Instead we talk to them about what they would like to do, give them training and
then we buy them a cow or what ever they want. This way, they don’t spend the
money on other things. This is the Islamic way’, says a manager of one of the
organization’s microfinance projects in Bangladesh. Thus, based on Islamic
economic principles, the microfinance programme has a distinct religious character,
but is at the same time in line with mainstream development ideals of sustainability
and capacity-building, and as such a perfect example of the added value that
religious NGOs can bring to development aid.
But sometimes the conflict between different discourses becomes irreconcilable.
While the organization has to a large degree succeeded in maintaining a
complementary balance between religion and development in external activities,
internally in the organization this balance is more difficult to uphold. Although the
board has come to accept, and perhaps even encourage, the increasing secularization
of aid activities as a way of attracting institutional funding, individual members—
most of them conservative Muslim dignitaries from Egypt—still expect a certain
level of religiosity among staff. And this conflicts with many staff members’
expectations of working in a professional development organization. The position of
women in the organization is an obvious example of this schism between religious
traditions and professional development practices. Reflecting the norms of
mainstream development, Islamic Relief has an elaborate gender policy, it
encourages women to apply for jobs and at least on the surface there is no
institutionalized discrimination of women. However, several staff members point
out to me that in reality, the organization is not as picture perfect as it may look. No
board members are women, and very few management positions are occupied by
women. Instead, women are employed in bottom- and mid-level positions such as
secretaries, teachers, assistants and project coordinators. Likewise, some staff, both
male and female, report of informal pressure for women to comply with religious
requirements and cover their heads: ‘We are not fundamentalist, we are moderate
here. So there should not be any rules for women. There are no special rules for the
boys’, a staff member tells me. A woman notes that while she enjoys working in
Islamic Relief, she is fully aware of her limited possibilities for upwards mobility in
the organization, and everybody thinks it will take years before the organization gets
a female director—if it will ever happen. ‘Donors should start enquiring about this’,
a person says. ‘Perhaps that would help’.
Conclusion
The above analysis of Islamic Relief and IIROSA, situated in a post 9.11. context,
has provided new empirical insights into the organizational identities of transna-
tional Muslim NGOs, exploring the ways in which these organizations understand
Islam and aid and the nexus between the two. The findings of the analysis may be
summarized in a continuum, echoing Bruce Lincoln’s two idealtypical models of
religious culture, on which the two organizations make up each their extreme: One
organization displays a pervasive and all-encompassing Islam, embedded in all
aspects of the organization; this is what Lincoln (2003, p. 59) calls a ‘maximalist’
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kind of religion, constituting the central domain of organizational community and
shaping all organizational discourses, practices and structures. The other demon-
strates a quasi-secular, almost invisible Islam, relegated to the sphere of personal
values and metaphysical concerns; by Lincoln termed ‘minimalist’ religion.
At one end of the spectrum, IIROSA insists on the intimate connection between
Islam and aid, presenting a pervasive organizational religiosity embedded in and
influencing all aspects of aid provision, from staff environment to activities and
funding, and as such colliding with mainstream donor expectations of religion and
aid as largely separate categories. IIROSA’s aid is seen to be ‘warm’, caring’ and
‘personal’, sometimes favourably compared with a Western, secular aid which is
‘cold’, effective’ and ‘routine.’ This dichotomy between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ is
even clearer in the organization’s understanding of the Global War on Terror,
interpreted as a war on Islam, instigated by a hypocritical US. In this war, Muslim
NGOs—symbol of the heart of Islam—have been wrongfully attacked, leading
thousands of poor people to suffer on that account. The solution is not to seek
cooperation with ‘the West’, but to continue providing aid and strengthen unity
among Muslim organizations, defending Islam and standing up to the unjust
accusations.
At the other end of the spectrum, Islamic Relief promotes an individualized,
invisible religiosity, subsidiary to discourses and practices of mainstream develop-
ment and humanitarian aid, thus opening up for integration into the aid field.
Introducing a distinction between ‘moderate Muslim NGOs’ and ‘fundamentalist
Muslim NGOs’, Islamic Relief places itself firmly within the Global War on Terror
discourse, carving out a space for the organization as a bridge builder between
‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ while at the same time excluding those organizations—the
Gulf-based NGOs—that cannot or do not want to adjust their religious identity. This
division is mirrored, and in turn strengthened, in another dichotomy, formulated in
the language of aid rather than religion and distinguishing between on the one hand
organizations whose aid is characterized by ‘sustainability’, ‘empowerment’, and
‘participation’, and on the other those whose aid is regarded as ‘charity’, and ‘hand-
outs’. In this perspective, a pervasive, visible religiosity is not only a sign of
‘fundamentalism’ and potentially ‘terrorism’ but also a sign of bad aid, making it
irreconcilable with full integration into mainstream politics of aid. However, while
promoting a secular, moderate religiosity, Islamic Relief has to simultaneously
satisfy not only the demands of a religious constituency for religious traditions, but
also donors’ requests for ‘added value’ of religious NGOs, necessitating a certain
level of visible religiosity in the organization.
This analysis, illustrating characteristics of transnational Muslim NGOs by way
of a continuum stretching from a compartmentalized, almost invisible Islam to a
highly visible, all-encompassing Islam is of course an analytical abstraction.
Organizations are not stagnant points on a continuum; they are constantly changing,
reflecting internal contestations between dominant tendencies and countertenden-
cies as well as external interactions with their surroundings. As such, the continuum
I have presented here should perhaps be seen as an illustration of different ways of
Islamizing aid rather than different kinds of Muslim NGOs, opening up for the
possibility that organizations may in time find new ways of Islamizing aid, moving
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up or down the continuum. And they do: Islamic Relief, for instance, recently
established an Islamic Values Committee, aimed at ensuring greater integration of
‘Islamic values’ into the organization’s activities and perhaps indicating a move
towards a re-Islamization of aid. In IIROSA, on the other hand, there are signs of
increased openness towards mainstream development actors and more secular forms
of aid provision. Thus, in a recent interview in Arab News (2010), the Secretary
General said: ‘We would like to have partnership with more UN agencies and
international organizations to benefit from their experience. This will give us an
opportunity to learn from them. They can also learn from us and this interaction will
help us become more professional in our mission’. So far, this has lead to a
partnership with WHO to cooperate on health programs for endemic diseases in
Afghanistan, Jordan, Pakistan, Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen; and a
memorandum of understanding with UNCEF to cooperate on projects for children’s
rights in Saudi Arabia. As a staff member optimistically notes: ‘It’s going that way,
they are going down the road of international cooperation. They have even started
doing microfinance projects’. These examples testify to the fact that it is not
possible to make steadfast typologies of transnational Muslim NGOs, just like the
relations they create between aid and religion cannot be conceptualized in terms of
definitive categories. Instead, studies of Muslim NGOs—as well as of any other
organization—must always take the form of specific investigations of the ways in
which concrete Muslim NGO understand Islam and aid in a particular context,
paying attention to the constant processes of contestation and composition,
internally as well as externally.
Acknowledgments I would like to thank staff in Islamic Relief and International Islamic Relief
Organization for sharing their time, thoughts, experiences and knowledge with me, which I am deeply
grateful for. Furthermore, I would also like to thank the following people for offering constructive
criticism, comments and suggestions: Mamoun Abuarqub, Iram Asif, Jonathan Benthall, Catrine
Christiansen, Selma Bukovica Gundersen, Atallah Fitzgibbon, Jeffrey Haynes, Ajaz Ahmed Khan, Louise
Lund Liebmann, Peter Mandaville, Daniel Nilsson DeHanas, Catharina Raudvere, as well as two
anonymous reviewers from Voluntas.
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... For additional details, seeMansour and Ezzat 2009: pp.119-122. 5 For more information about the difficulties facing state-affiliated FBOs, seeSvoboda et al. 2015; similar case could be noticed in Human Rights Commission, seePetersen 2012Petersen -2013 For more details about the differences among various FBOs, see Clarke and Ware 2015: p.40.Khafagy Journal of International Humanitarian Action (2020) 5:13 ...
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