GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Islamic charities on a fault line. The Jordanian case
Paper Proposal Text :
The wave of Arab revolts undoubtedly represents a watershed period for Arab politics. The Gulf countries, which have not been spared by the upheavals generated by the initial Tunisian revolt, have reacted in different ways. Significantly, the GCC extended its hand for membership to Jordan and Morocco, a sign that monarchies were not willing to see their members breaking ranks over the means to organize political order, even if at the heavy cost of nipping dissidence in the bud.

Islamic charities, with lavish funds made available by Gulf countries and the oil bonanza since the 1970s, have often been considered as one of the channels through which conservative monarchies of the Gulf have attempted to diffuse political influence and religious models of mobilisation, first in the Arab world, and then beyond. In the last decade and in particular now with the Arab revolts, the focus for the Gulf’s influence seems to have shifted towards the political role played by satellite TVs and the diplomatic clout that Qatar has managed to gain over the last year, with a mix of soft and hard diplomacy (e.g. al-Jazeera combined with military support for Libya).

This paper suggests that Islamic charities not only will keep playing a role in the efforts made by Gulf countries to vie for regional political leverage, but also that they have been at a forefront for a more profound battle with international actors, in particular western ones, around the definition of a new political subjectivity.

Though providing few elements for the first argument (e.g., accusations of foreign funding from Gulf countries to Islamic charities in Egypt during the last months of 2011), this paper will concentrate on the second argument, namely looking at the pivotal role that Islamic charities have played in both resisting variegated forms of control by western powers (in particular with the so-called ‘war on terror’ after 9/11), and by promoting a different form of political subjectivity. The paper will concentrate on historical and empirical evidences stemming mostly from Jordan.

In a nutshell, Islamic charities active in the Arab context are the crystallizing, or better, the conflicting point of different approaches and models of international aid. On the one hand, western aid tends to be subservient to the priorities of hegemonic powers, and for the two decades before 2011, discourses about civil society, democracy or empowerment have in reality been functional in preserving a political order favourable to western powers and their clients in the region. (To be sure, there remains some space for independence for international actors, in particular non-governmental ones, but their efforts and scope of action can easily be washed away by massive and unmatched sums disbursed by key actors such as the USA, or by European actors). On the other hand, local Islamic charities have openly resisted the discursive and organizational model of western aid, tapping into different symbolic and moral repertoires to organize the collection of resources (Challand 2008 ‘A Nahda of Charitable Organization?’ International Journal of Middle East Studies 40), and remaining often smaller institutions, closer to a model of locally-rooted social coalitions, rather than politicized actors (cf Schaueblin 2010, 2012).

It would be a mistake to say that all Islamic charities altogether are in opposition to a presumed ‘western model’. A decade ago already Abdel-Rahman Ghandour has shown that with the advent of mass technological communication, some of the larger transnational Gulf charities have also evolved into highly professionalized structures (2001, Jihad humanitaire), while Marie Juul Petersen (2011 ‘Islamizing Aid’) demonstrated how actors like Islamic Relief Worldwide have been able to create a successful niche for their modern transnational and universal approach to humanitarian intervention. This is corroborated by what is now a consensus on saying that Islamic banking is nothing but a niche in the highly profitable banking industry, suggesting thus that large transnational Islamic charities have been gradually transformed by the structures of capitalist political economy. Another proof, for large Islamic charities, of the iron law of conformity with dominant (western) praxes has been given by the stifling legislation passed by Gulf countries themselves in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, curtailing thus drastically “philanthropic activities abroad” (this workshop’s rationale).

The paper argues, conceptually, that Islamic charities are located directly on a fault-line between pressures from outside (US political and military influence, international diffusion of strict regulation models for charities, etc.), and efforts from within to change local societies. Calls for Islamization of society by charities have often been misread by outside observers in essentialist terms (predominance of religion over politics), when in reality they signify deep discontent with both neoliberal reforms imposed from outside and relayed by complacent local regimes, a problem that has been centrally thematized in many countries during the wave of Arab revolts.

The paper taps into the case of Jordan to illustrate such contradictory processes. Anne-Marie Baylouny (2010 Privatizing Welfare in the Middle East) demonstrates how the informal sector made of kinship associations and of small Islamic charities has grown exactly at times of economic hardships followed by severe budgetary cuts in reaction to structural adjustment programmes. Christopher Parker’s article on Amman as a ‘neoliberal assemblage’ (2009 ‘Tunnel-bypasses and minarets of capitalism’, Political Geography 28:2), or Schwedler’s piece on ‘Amman Cosmopolitan: Spaces and Practices of Aspiration and Consumption’ (2010 Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 30: 3) comfort this reading of deep contradictory forces in which marginal actors, such as smaller charities, are seen resisting what Parker calls “the pedagogy of neoliberalism” (Parker 2009, 116-118).
The paper, relying mostly on secondary literature with a few field interviews conducted in the last years, will document the trajectories of Islamic charities in Jordan and analyze the tensions generated by western aid and financial support from Gulf countries, connecting hopefully the dots to the emergence of protests in the Hashemite Kingdom in the early months of 2011 and conflicting efforts to support different political subjectivities.