Aid Work, Cynicism, and Islam

Recently, I stumbled upon this post by a Muslim. It outlines what they feel Islam is about. I think most of the Muslims reading this would agree with what’s written.

Here’s an excerpt:

Be truthful in everything, don’t lie.
Be sincere and straightforward, don’t be hypocritical.
Be honest, don’t be corrupt.
Be humble, don’t be boastful.
Be moderate, don’t be excessive.
Be reserved, don’t be garrulous.
Be soft-spoken, don’t be loud.
Be refined and gentle in speech, don’t curse and use foul language.
Be loving and solicitous to others, don’t be unmindful of them.
Be considerate and compassionate, don’t be harsh.
Be polite and respectful to people, don’t be insulting or disrespectful.
Be generous and charitable, don’t be selfish and miserly.
Be good natured and forgiving, don’t be bitter and resentful.
Share and be content with what Allah has given you, don’t be greedy.
Be cheerful and pleasant, don’t be irritable and morose.
Be chaste and pure, don’t be lustful.
Be alert and aware of the world around you, don’t be absent-minded.
Be dignified and decent, don’t be graceless.
Be optimistic and hopeful, don’t be cynical or pessimistic.

I wish more aid workers (especially aid workers that serve in countries where there are a lot of Muslims) understood this and respected it. Because, especially in online conversations about aid and development, there seems to be a penchant towards cynicism.

Don’t get me wrong – I understand why that is. Anyone who spends any reasonable amount of time doing aid work (and I don’t mean short curated celebrity, journalist, or voluntourism trips) will understand there is a lot to be frustrated, enraged, and outraged about when it comes to aid and development.

But, and this is why I often see the beauty in some of the sayings and teachings of Islam, there is a need to acknowledge a grey area. It’s not a binary proposition: one needn’t be either cynical and bitter or doe-eyed and optimistic. One can intellectually acknowledge there is a lot to be cynical about… and choose to be optimistic.

For those who are Muslim – that’s what God commands people to do. For aid workers who work and serve in Muslim communities – they need to acknowledge and respect this fact. Unfortunately some aid workers (especially vocal aid bloggers) don’t get it.

I think what these individuals feel is that cynicism is a sign of intellectual refinement and critical thinking. While that can very well be – there are ways to be intellectual, to disagree, and to offer critique in a way that follows the tenets listed above. And, to be honest, Muslims aren’t saints in their adherence to this either.

It’s also important to realize that aid workers aren’t Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Aid discussions can’t be compared, as have already been, to shows on Comedy Central. Because when aid workers pretend to be Jon Stewart they may end up coming off more like Rush Limbaugh to those that they are trying to serve.