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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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”
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?
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.