The Nexus of Aid Work & Islamic Extremism

Hartel (Strike) in Bangladesh

With less than a month before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, violence, protests, and strikes have erupted in Bangladesh. Much of this is fueled by an Islamic political party called Jamaat-e-Islami. This is a political party that exists both in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Their goal? To advance the Islamization of Muslim countries (with the goal of ultimately ruling by Sharia Law).

When acts of violence and religious extremism occur in a far-away country, we usually don’t think of it as having anything to do with the charities we donate to, how NGOs operate in these countries, or how the attitudes and approaches of aid workers affect these issues. But the two are closely interlinked.

What surprises me the most is that aid workers are often the ones least willing to admit that such a connection exists at all. The impression I get from many of my friends and colleagues in the humanitarian sector, is that many see themselves as Starfleet officers operating on their own version of Gene Roddenberry’s Prime Directive.

Unfortunately, while there is a great deal of nobility, selflessness, and self-sacrifice in the aid industry, the notion that one can provide humanitarian aid and development while being impartial and above the fray of local conflicts is science fiction.

If Captain Picard was an aid worker, this would be a photo of him sending an email which would save millions of lives.

It’s important to note that there is nothing sinister about how aid work can sometimes inflame, fuel, and amplify Islamic extremism. There is no malice. There is no conspiracy. There is no neo-colonial plot. And, for the most part, aid workers on the ground and in NGO offices are working under the best of intentions.

Rather, this is happening because the aid and development sector – even in open discussions such as aid blogs – is developing a consensus that more reflects groupthink than it does reflect the specific contexts and realities on the ground. This is especially true in Muslim countries. Here are three examples:

1) “Orphanages Are Bad”

Orphanage Tourism from Regina Rivard on Vimeo.

You will be hard pressed to find an aid blogger that thinks supporting orphanages are a good idea. Over and over and over again aid bloggers and Western-centric aid professionals have been pushing the notion that family-based care (through adoption by neighbors or surviving blood relatives) are a better alternative to housing children in an orphanage.

But, did you know, in Islam adoption isn’t permissible? Even in a progressive Muslim country like Bangladesh, adoptions are not permitted by law (although there are some high profile exceptions if you can pull some strings). The closest alternative to adoption is for an adult to assume a guardianship or stewardship role over a child.

However, even that has it’s downsides. Because, under Islamic sharia law and jurisprudence on inheritance, a child under guardianship has no right or entitlement to any inheritance from parental surrogate (unless voluntarily given by the guardian). [EDIT: I forgot to mention that attempts to move to more secular inheritance laws not based on Sharia Law have also been violently resisted.]

As many Bangladeshi families, including some in my own family can attest, what this can often lead to is orphaned children in family-based care being treated like second class citizens. They are seen as another mouth to feed – but one that neither adds to the family name (because of lack of adoption) nor has any Sharia Law-based right to the family wealth.

A cousin of mine (now grown up and living in America) who lost his father in the Bangladesh War of Liberation. He tried living amongst a conservative Muslim surrogate family in Bangladesh but was treated like a second class citizen. My father stepped in and he ended up living with me as a kid in Canada. For many not as fortunate, orphanages are a preferred alternative given Islamic prohibitions on adoption.

The Islamic solution to this problem is the creation of orphanages. But they aren’t orphanages in the Western sense – no one is on display waiting for adoption. Rather, these are institutions where the care of orphans become the responsibility (and investment) of an entire community.

One of the complaints aid professionals have against orphanages is that it tends to attract parents who send children they are otherwise unable to afford to raise themselves. While this is true, in the absence of a risk of being “adopted”, Islamic “orphanages” often function as boarding schools. In fact, depending on how far away the orphanage is, children with parents can go home on holidays.

Given that rules against adoption are part of national law in Bangladesh, even non-Muslim communities like the Dharmarajika Buddhist Monastery have created institutions that double as permanent homes for orphans and as a boarding school for children with parents.

The problem is that the majority of the (Western-centric) aid professionals and NGOs (that control the bulk of the billions and billions of dollars in the aid system) have deemed orphanages to be a bad aid practice. The result hasn’t stemmed the construction of orphanages. Rather it’s merely handed a monopoly on the construction, finance, and agenda of orphanages to Islamic groups.

I saw this first hand in Bangladesh. Virtually all of the orphans I encountered in Southern Bangladesh (perhaps a disproportionate amount due to the frequency of natural disasters in Bangladesh) were in Islamic orphanages. These doubled as madrasahs. Children spent all their time learning from the Qu’ran. None of them had any interaction with non-muslims nor were they taught any math or science.

Students, residents, and orphans of a local Islamic-run Orphanage and Madrasah in Southern Bangladesh. Students had never encountered a non-Muslim until the day they met me. Curriculum includes only learning the Qu'ran everyday. No math. No sciences. No learning about other cultures. Primary donor sets the tone of education.

While there is nothing inherently evil or violent about a madrasah, as the Washington Post points out, Islamic parties like Jamaat-e-Islami mobilize through the support through their network of Islamic madrasahs. The funders of such schools/orphanages aren’t always benevolent. Some provide skewed interpretations of the Qu’ran while others go as far as to provide guns.

The bottom line is, by marginalizing orphanages as “bad aid”, aid professionals and NGOs have essentially helped to create a feeder network for extremist groups.

2) “Aid is a Field for Professionals Only”

A somewhat respected aid blogger (working at a large American NGO) setup a second anonymous Twitter account to call me a "hack" and an "idiot" (among other insults). When I collected evidence and found who he was and privately confronted him, he graciously deleted this secondary account. I still get snark from him on his main account from time to time.

While I myself do much of my work by teaming up with reputable NGOs, aid professionals have been.. less than kind… to individuals doing aid and development outside of the NGO system. Their logic is compelling at first blush. Many NGOs have been around for 50 to 75 years. Although not perfect, they have done a lot of learning on how to do things right.

However, for every aid worker that sees “DIY-aid” as an amateur intrusion on their turf, there is a mullah or imam who feel the same about aid workers and NGOs. After all, if aid workers can emphasize their industry’s 75+ years of professional know-how, why can’t imams, mullahs, and everyday Muslims emphasize Islam’s 750+ years of jurisprudence, knowledge, and wisdom on helping the poor?

Muslims and others will always be there to help the poor outside of the aid and NGO system. Refusing to accept this reality just creates polarization & conflict.

As anyone familiar with Islam will tell you, Islam is technically not a religion. Believers refer to it as a deen – that is a way of life. And, as part of this deen, Islam says much more than just “give alms to the poor”. Islam’s approach to aid and development include a vast array of centuries old protocols, procedures, and know-how that are incorporated and integrated into various Muslim cultures.

I saw this first hand in Bangladesh as Imams on “Islamic TV” stressed the procedures and protocols of providing food to the poor down to an almost micro-managed level of detail. One isn’t allowed to take a cut from the poor’s share of the food for “overhead costs”. In fact, there is even a set of Islamic protocols and procedures to determine who gets to use the skin of the cow for leather.

A group of Muslims perform Qurban - a process of killing an animal to provide food to the poor. The procedures and protocols on how the poor must be helped are quite extensive and have existed for hundreds of years.

In fact, even the structure of the modern day aid organization is somewhat antithetical to Islam. Traditionally, in Islam, most businesses and organizations (including charitable organizations called Waqf Trusts) generally consist of three people. And, generally speaking, the organization or business automatically dissolves upon the death and/or exit of one of the members.

With the rise of non-Islamic standard institutions such as NGOs, many Muslims (especially Bangladeshi and Bangladeshi Diaspora) opt to fulfill their Islamic obligations to assist in the aid and development of the poor through (Islamically permissible) private giving. I’ve talked about this before and I’ve also talked about how an individual approach can often be more preferred and trusted.

The bottom line is, by pushing a narrative that aid and development is the exclusive domain of NGOs and aid professionals, aid professionals have failed to acknowledge the legitimacy of approaches that differ from their own. It’s resulted in the fueling of polarization, violence, and hatred of NGOs in the Muslim world.

As a side note, from my own experiences and off-the-record inquiries, I’ve learned that the anonymous aid bloggers most aggressively pushing the narrative that “aid is a field for professionals only” are those working (but not publicly disclosed) in Christian Faith-based NGOs. These organizations tend to have Christian-only hiring practices and have little to no Muslim voices within their NGO (especially at the management level).

3) “Giving Stuff is Bad”

Taken in my mother's home village. Local community requested help acquiring pens, pencils, and notebooks for students. All were purchased in bazaar's in my mother's home village. A small "union" of school supply storekeepers (not just one storekeeper) later confessed to me they jack up the price when World Vision (a Christian NGO which won the legal right to hire only Christians in their US Offices) comes to buy supplies. By the way, to my knowledge, all the storekeepers were Muslim.

Especially when I can work in my ancestral home village, I love the fact that I don’t have a set plan or program. Instead, I can let locals set the agenda on what they think needs to be done in order to help their community or families. Granted, I work on a small scale but I’ve seen this approach work with success on a larger scale too.

However, especially since my work is so public, I always get nervous when a community or family asks for food assistance, help with clothing and shoes, requests school supplies, complains about charity overhead, or asks for something like a well (or a school) to be built. It’s not that I don’t want to do it – but I know doing so will leave me vulnerable to aid blogger snark.

This is because many aid bloggers hate projects which involve giving “stuff” (be it things requested like clothes, shoes, or food) to the poor. Furthermore, many think the model of raising funding for overhead separately is “bad aid”. And those that have tried such as Toms Shoes and Charity: Water have received a lot of snark and criticism for doing so.

I tweeted some complements to Charity: Water and their CEO, and this was the reaction from an employee with PLAN International.

In many respects, I can empathize with this criticism. After all, many of the critics of Charity: Water or TOMS shoes are from big NGOs which deal in billions of dollars, have decades of experience, and have volumes of data to backup their claims.

Feet injuries are one of the most common injuries after a disaster. Shoes and sandals are also not a top purchase item for parents since children grow into new sizes so fast. Taken in 2007 during Cyclone Sidr. It must be noted that while I saw many NGOs operating there, I only saw a Muslim group give out replacement sandals.

The thing is much of this data is skewed towards quantitative research. What does that mean? Well it means it’s mostly focused on numbers and scientific methodology. It includes sample surveys, large samples, double blind tests, control groups, and other numerical analysis. Sounds good, right?

The problem is that there is a huge bulk of data that this approach excludes. It excludes the centuries of work that the Muslim world has done to help pull people out of poverty. It’s a data set that is not stored in a survey sample and cannot be learned through scientific testing. Rather we need to develop a verstehen of the local cultural traditions and histories. The only way to get at it is through a qualitative – not quantitative approach.

One of the many schools one of my great maternal ancestors helped build (I'm told). Most have grown to large multi-story secular government schools. Why have these schools lasted generations when some schools by NGOs close down a few years after construction? Only historical, anthropological, and ethnographic data (not numbers) will reveal the answer.

If such an approach were taken than many would realize that some of the longest lasting impacts in the Muslim world has been through providing “stuff”. By building schools, drilling wells, providing school supplies. In fact, the history of the Waqf Trusts include building hospitals but also even simply just providing the mattresses for the hospital beds.

The bottom line is that, by putting a bias towards quantitative data and marginalizing giving “stuff” as “handouts” many NGOs and aid professionals ignore the bulk of Islam’s centuries old contribution to aid and development. It’s a contribution that shows a history of providing material goods and “stuff” which have successfully transformed communities, individuals, and families.

The Solution

I’m afraid I don’t have a cliche to pimp. There is no one solution to this problem. Instead, I’d like to offer the following thoughts:

  • Ignoring context doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
  • Taking a neutral stance doesn’t result in a neutral impact.
  • A consensus on aid among aid professionals doesn’t mean there is consensus on the ground.

Finally I think there is an implicit assumption by many aid professionals and aid bloggers that, as the digital divide closes and the poor are able to speak for themselves, that minority voices will join the discussion on aid and development. This is simply not true.

I am ever grateful that the reaction to my work by Bangladeshi villagers, Bangladeshi diaspora, and the greater Muslim community has been the polar opposite of some of the reactions I've received from aid bloggers.

As I’ve talked about before, those who are the most conservative in their Islamic beliefs would not find the tone and pattern of aid blogger discussions to be conducive to Islamic codes of conduct. Snark and sarcasm for example, to a devout and conservative Muslim, are sins. Sins equivalent in religious significance – in some cases – to cannibalism. Many will simply avoid entering conversations where such are present.

That’s part of the reason, even though I blog about aid and development, I go to great lengths to point out that I don’t consider myself an aid blogger. Because I want to make it clear to my friends in Bangladesh and any Muslims that support my work that I do not condone the snark, sarcasm, and personal attacks in the discussion of aid & development.

Rather, I hope this conversation changes. When it does, and when that impact percolates to the reality on the ground, the nexus between aid work and Islamic extremism will change with it.

  • Anna

    I don’t know much about aid and how it all works, but what you’re doing is incredible.
    Also, your blogs are illuminating and really interesting.
    Thanks! As soon as I get a debit card I’ll be donating. (My Dad, sadly, is rather sceptical of one person amateur aid workers.)
    DFTBA

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hey Anna – my work isn’t about raising as much money as possible, so no worries. But your dad’s skepticism shouldn’t stop him from donating to, say, Save the Children :) They are great.

  • Anna

    I didn’t mean to suggest that your work was all about raising money – simply that I do want to, when I can.
    And yes, he does donate to charities. He isn’t anti charity at all, just for whatever reasons, he believes it’s better to give money to bigger organisations. I should probably make him read your blog. :)
    Thanks for replying- you’ve been a bit of an idol to me for a long time. Your work is so inspiring and impressive. :)

  • http://twitter.com/NotReallyDaria Sarah Avery

    This was a very informative and interesting post. I’ve always been skeptical of one-size-fits-all approaches to any dilemma and your wonderfully articulated points validate my skepticism. I’ve taken many classes in which my professors stressed the importance of contextualizing and “historicizing” a book/essay/play/etc. prior to reading it in order to better understand the content. Really, that’s something that can and should be applied to life in general. Your work and your words are admirable.

  • http://twitter.com/NotReallyDaria Sarah Avery

    This was a very informative and interesting post. I’ve always been skeptical of one-size-fits-all approaches to any dilemma and your wonderfully articulated points validate my skepticism. I’ve taken many classes in which my professors stressed the importance of contextualizing and “historicizing” a book/essay/play/etc. prior to reading it in order to better understand the content. Really, that’s something that can and should be applied to life in general. Your work and your words are admirable.

  • http://twitter.com/DaveAlgoso Dave Algoso

    Shawn, there are many things I love about this post — and many things I disagree with. I wrote a response on my own blog. I’d love if you read it and shared your thoughts:

    http://findwhatworks.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/a-response-to-the-nexus-of-aid-work-islamic-extremism-that-was-way-too-long-for-the-comments-section/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=720757503 Jo Wallace

    It was a long read, but thank you Shawn. It is good to see people really getting to the heart of issues like this.
    I, personally, am a Christian and hope to get into some kind of aid work at some point, and it is good to hear this kind of stuff to get it right.
    Yes, I would bring my Christianity into it, but that doesn’t mean that other people do not know how to look after their own people.
    Thank you.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hi Dave – thanks so much for writing such a wonderful response. I apologize for the length of my reply, but it’s in your comment section. You can read it by clicking this:

    http://findwhatworks.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/a-response-to-the-nexus-of-aid-work-islamic-extremism-that-was-way-too-long-for-the-comments-section/#comment-777

  • http://twitter.com/ns_ahmed Nabeel Shakeel Ahmed

    I agree with you in so many ways, Shawn. In particularly the last one – criticism of aid is something that I often struggle to accept, usually because the criticism is often not constructive for a variety of reasons; not placed in proper context, not based on an empathetic understanding of the work being done, not based on research, lacking suggestions for improvement, and more.
    I also think that Dave Algoso’s response is more about you (probably unwittingly) setting up a bit of a straw man and targeting the post at a set of people rather than a set of ideas.
    The title seems to establish a link between aid work and Islamic extremism (while also implicitly connecting Islam and extremism, a mindset that is on full display in the Morgan Spurlock doc you shared on Twitter just now; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbjwcX1tEpY#t=5m36s for others).

    Regardless, excellent post!

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hey Nabeel – thanks for writing (and for the great twitter discussions we’ve had).

    As I noticed recently, you live in Toronto. Are you familiar with University of Toronto Professor Bernd Baldus? He’s a sociologist.

    Basically, my blog post lifts a lot from his methodology and approach. I am not saying there is an intentional connection between aid work and Islamic extremism. What I am saying is an unintentional and unintended “positive feedback loop” seems to have been created.

    And, once Dave Algoso approves my comment on his blog, you’ll see that aid bloggers by no means reflect all of the aid industry. But they the most vocal – in the same way Islamic extremists are often the most vocal. Both paint a picture (incorrectly) on the whole.

    And. beyond the snark, there is unintentional ethno-centrism in the language and discourse in aid blogs. And I touch upon two examples in my lengthy response to Dave Algoso on his blog.

  • http://twitter.com/aidnography Tobias Denskus

    Hi Shawn, I just posted a contribution to your conversation with Dave and others, focussing on three issues: 1. Looking beyond NGOs: The state, international aid organisations and discourses of development,  2. How influential are ‘development bloggers’? and 3. Resistance to ‘development’ to protect local power structures?

    http://aidnography.blogspot.com/2011/07/my-contribution-to-nexus-of-aid-work.html

  • Nathan

    I don’t think I’m fully understanding one of your points here. At one point in your post you refer to this blog entry http://lessonsilearned.org/2010/02/changing-attitudes-and-actions-takes-more-than-giving-things/ as being critical of organizations like Charity Water and you seemed to imply that you disagree with the entry. While I agree with you that the entry does seem somewhat critical of actions aimed at “giving things away” the following quote from the entry suggests to me that the author aims to empower the local population:
      “…we look to bednets to solve a malaria problem. We try to rush to get more bednets to more people to solve a problem that isn’t just about things. In many places in the world, malaria-carrying mosquitoes feed at sunset. Most people are not spending the time right at sunset in their beds. Besides that, it isn’t about getting the bednets into people’s hands; the solution is educating people about malaria—ways to prevent it (including bednets), how to treat it. In places where malaria is very prevalent, putting dollars which might have gone to bednet distribution into educating people about the early signs of malaria, connecting people to local or free hospitals, and providing education about the most useful forms of treatment might save more lives and also create a market demand for bednets.  Besides, giving things away can sometimes destroy the development of market-based solutions to product distribution.” It isn’t my intention to sound snarky but isn’t the empowerment of the locals one of your goals as well? It seems to me like a more balanced approach is needed. To stay with the malaria example wouldn’t it be fair to say that local populations need to both be given bednets in addition to receiving malaria related education 

  • L (not the detective)

    Your blog posts are always insightful, Shawn. :) I know pretty much nothing about Islam so I appreciate that you explain WHY certain aid techniques won’t work in a predominately Muslim country. The thing that is the saddest is aid bloggers and NGOs attacking anyone who has a (useful, effective) idea different than them. We’re all in it to help alleviate poverty and there is not “ONE AND ONLY ONE” solution to the problem.

  • Fugstar

    interesting post!

  • Fugstar

    On Adoption, I don think prohibition is the full story. One of the objectives of sharia is the preservation of lineage, so lying to people about their heritage is probably out of the question and the non-applicability of the mandated part of the inheritance issue is there. There was plenty of adoption in the social sense at the time of Prophecy.

  • Afifa Darabuddin

    Salam (God’s peace): 

    Islam is a middle path, not a path of extremes. God is The Most Perfect, Just, and Wise, human beings are not – whether they are Hindu humans, Muslim humans, Jewish humans, etc. Islam (peaceful surrender to God’s Will) is a Way of Life prescribed since the beginning and was the Way of Life since the first humans, Adam and Eve. Adoption is strongly promoted in Islam. God’s last Messenger and Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him) said, “I will be like this in Paradise with the person who takes cares of the orphan.” God’s last Messenger and Prophet Muhammad raised his forefinger and middle finger (by way of illustration to show the closeness of them). [Narrated in the books of Bukhari]The condition for adoption is not to lose the identity of the one being adopted. The adopted has rights to his/her original family and lineage, the right to know who they are. The Prophet Muhammad had adopted children such as Zaid ibn Haritha, Anas ibn Malik, Ali ibn Talib. Zaid ibn Haritha was “Zaid ibn Muhammad, which means Zaid son of Muhammad” but was changed to “Zaid ibn Haritha” after God’s revelation. Zaid is not the biological son of Muhammad, but is the biological son of Haritha. The adopting parents may make a bequest up to one-third for the adopted child in their Islamic Will.