GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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According to the sociologist Anthony Giddens, the contemporary phase of modernity is characterized by three features: First, improved means of transport and communication allow human interaction over ever vaster stretches of space, thus giving rise to the phenomenon called ‘globalization’. Second, traditional beliefs and practices are no longer accepted unquestioningly and thus need to justify themselves with reference to external criteria; furthermore, the ascriptive stratum of ‘guardians’ preserving and interpreting traditions is challenged by the emergence of anonymous ‘experts’. Third, there is the spread of social reflexivity, i.e. the use of knowledge as basis for the organization and change of society. This confronts people with an enormous amount of – often contradictory – information, in the face of which they have to make decisions about their life.
These features of modernity can also be traced in the case of Gulf charitable NGOs, namely the International Islamic Relief Organization of Saudi Arabia (IIROSA) and the Kuwayt-based Islamic International Charitable Organization (IICO). They both have a transnational character, i.e. despite their origins in Sa’udi Arabia and, respectively, Kuwayt, the activites of IIROSA and IICO encompass several countries, primarily Muslim ones.
Furthermore, these organizations draw their legitimacy from religious ulama’, i.e. traditional ‘guardians’. In the case of IICO, its founding goes back to an initiative by the ‘global mufti’ Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who exemplifies how ‘guardians’ adapt traditions to modern conditions: He not only spreads his message through state-of-the-art means of communications, most recently satellite TV, but also does so by attempting to convince his audience through rational arguments, rather than presenting it as words of wisdom to be unquestioningly accepted. And especially since 9/11, IIROSA and IICO supplement their references to the approval by Islamic dignitaries with claims stressing their adherence to universalistic-sounding standards like ‘science’ and ‘accountability’, thereby drawing legitimacy from ‘expert systems’.
Finally, both organization owe their foundation to social reflexivity, i.e. increasingly wide-spread knowledge conveyed through global media. In the case of IIROSA in 1978, it was awareness of the humanitarian disasters taking place at the Horn of Africa; in the case of IICO in 1984, it was related to a conference discussing the global financial system from an Islamic perspective. These Gulf charities thus represent an awareness not only of humanitarian needs (globally in general and within the dar al-Islam in particular) but also of the different options available to meet these needs.
The applicability of the Giddensian concepts of time-space distanciation, de-traditionalization and social reflexivity for a sociologically informed discussion of Gulf charities like IIROSA and IICO can thus be asserted. Giddens relates the phenomena decribed by these concepts to what he calls ‘the late modern age’ and indicates that they have fully come to dominate our life during the last few decades only. This fits well into the fact that IIROSA and IICO are both around three decades old. Thus, the emergence of Gulf charities would be one more aspects of, to use Giddens’s terminology again, ‘the social revolution of our times’.
However, a diachronic comparison with earlier instances of charities in the Arabian Peninsula throws some doubts upon such an assumption and, by extension of the argument, the watershed character which Giddens assigns to the ‘late modern age’. It is true that formal charitable organizations like IIROSA and IICO are of recent progeny. Before about the 1970s, charitable activities in the Arabian Peninsula, whether by rulers or by private individuals, were relatively limited and usually done in an ad hoc way. There were notable exceptions from the first decandes of the 20th century, however. One is the Hijazi pearl merchant Muhammad ‘Ali b. Zaynal ‘Ali Riza, who financed a number of modern schools; another the Hadhrami brothers Abu Bakr and ‘Abd ar-Rahman al-Kaf, who used their income from real estate in Singapore to sponsor a variety of services in education, health and transport.
The charitable activities of the ‘Ali Riza and the al-Kaf share many of the features that we have identified with the present-day organizations: a translocal scope, encompassing parts of the Arabian Peninsula, of India and of Southeast Asia; a reformulation of traditional beliefs in response to universalistic ways of thinking, influenced by Islamic reformers like ‘Afghani, ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida; and a reflexive discussion of the workings of global society, based upon printed journals, rather than television. These example thus show that the phenomena identified with the ‘late modern age’ are not that ‘late’, after all.
There is, however, one crucial difference between the ‘Ali Riza and al-Kaf on the one hand and IIROSA and IICO on the other. The formers were rich merchant families which pursued their charitable activities in the absence of much infrastructural provisions by the state. The latter, on the other hand, are formal organizations encompassing government ministers, businessmen and university professors, which supplement, rather than substitute, state activities. In fact, both IIROSA and IICO are overseen by the Saudi and Kuwayti states. It is here, rather than in the degree of time-space distanciaton, de-traditionalization or social reflexivity, that the contrast to the earlier charities lies.
This paper thus does not only modify Giddens’s more exaggerated claims about the newness of the ‘late modern age’. It also takes issue with the claim of Marie Stuul Petersen (on whose excellent PhD Thesis it heavily draws) that the Gulf charities reflect a change in the character of Islamization, namely its driving force shifting from the state to civil society. In contrast, I would assert that, compared with the earlier charities run by merchant families, the contemporary charitable organizations remain quite under the thumb of the state.