GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
Juul Petersen
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Gulf-based Muslim NGOs after 9.11. and the ‘War on Terror’: Navigating between aid cultures
Paper Proposal Text :
Since 9.11. and the ensuing ‘War on Terror’, most research on international Muslim NGOs has tended to divide this group of organizations into ‘moderate’ NGOs on one side and ‘fundamentalist’ and sometimes ‘extremist’ NGOs on the other. Implicit in this dichotomy is a distinction between organizations that base their aid on principles of universalism and neutrality, seeking dialogue and cooperation with Western donors and NGOs; and organizations that promote a missionary, perhaps even militant kind of aid, isolating themselves or even openly fighting Western organizations.

In concrete terms, British NGOs such as Muslim Aid and Islamic Relief have often been seen as examples of the former, while Gulf-based NGOs such as the Saudi Arabian International Islamic Relief Organization (IIROSA) and the Kuwaiti International Islamic Charitable Organization (IICO) have been cast as examples of the latter.

Through case studies of two of the world’s major Gulf-based Muslim NGOs, the IIROSA and IICO, this paper seeks to go beyond such simplistic categorizations by exploring the ways in which these organizations seek to position themselves in the contemporary aid field, thereby challenging or at least softening the dichotomies between ‘moderate’ and ‘fundamentalist’ Muslim aid.

The paper argues that international Muslim NGOs from the Gulf balance between two different aid cultures; that of traditional Islamic aid and that of Western development aid, seeking to construct a kind of aid that is simultaneously legitimate to an audience of individual Muslim donors in the Gulf and Western aid agencies such as DfID and ECHO. Through strategies of adoption, pragmatic alignment and integration, they combine elements from the two aid cultures, presenting what we may call a developmentalised Islamic aid.

One approach to the developmentalisation of aid is adoption – the uncritical embracing of particular cultural elements without noticeable modifications or alterations. An example of this is IICO’s and IIROSA’s incorporation of mainstream Western ideals of professionalism. Both organisations display an explicit focus on issues of professionalism, praising Western actors for their transparency and accountability, and rejecting old Islamic traditions of secrecy and anonymity in an attempt to counter allegations of corruption and suspicious connections.

Pragmatic alignment is another common approach, referring to the pragmatic alignment of opposing cultural elements but without fully adopting one or the other. A case in point is the introduction of what we may call a principled universalism or a pragmatic particularism, aimed at aligning IIROSA and IICO’s solidarity-driven focus on fellow Muslims with principles of universalism, central to the culture of development aid. Seeking to avoid accusations of discrimination, the organisations argue that they do in principle support a universalist approach, but they focus primarily on Muslims out of pragmatic reasons (e.g. because the majority of people in the countries they work are Muslim, or because the majority of the world’s poor are actually Muslims). In a somewhat similar vein, missionary activities, or da’wa, are justified with reference to issues of cultural sensitivity. Attempting to align their aid provision with values of neutrality and non-confessionalism central to the culture of development aid, IIROSA and IICO increasingly coin their da’wa activities in terms of ‘home missions’ that focus on strengthening the faith, and by extension, identity of Muslims rather than converting non-Muslims.

Finally, a third approach seeks to integrate two cultural elements, seen to be ideologically congruent. One element is not prioritised over the other, as in the approaches of respectively adoption and pragmatic alignment; instead, the two elements are merged. The integration of the concept of empowerment into the aid provision of especially IICO testifies to such processes of integration. Emerging as a development buzzword in the 1980s, empowerment has now been translated into an Islamic aid context as tawkeel, justified by reference to Islamic traditions and sayings and adjusted to fit Islamic principles. Originally understood in the sense of delegation of authority, the organisations have re-interpreted tawkeel, equating it with the concept of empowerment, often in the form of income-generating activities and vocational training. Justified by reference to Islamic sayings and adjusted to fit Islamic principles of riba, these activities remain thoroughly Islamised while at the same time serving as tools for individual self-help, almost indistinguishable from mainstream empowerment projects of the development culture. In a similar vein, the concept of moderation, brought into fashion by the War on Terror, has been adopted by the IICO, attempting to integrate it into Islamic aid traditions it by reference to theological traditions of wasatiya.

This portrait of two Gulf-based Muslim NGOs shows that these organisations are perhaps best understood in broader terms than simply as ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘traditional’ Muslim organisations, relegated to the periphery of the mainstream development culture. The ways in which these international Muslim NGOs relate to respectively the Islamic aid culture and the culture of development are not conditioned on dichotomies of rejection or accept, but are blurred, ambiguous and shifting. On one hand, for instance, the organisations build on a rationale of solidarity, often implicitly or explicitly referring to a dichotomy between the warm and personal Muslim organisations and the cold and professional Western organisations. On the other hand, they hail the same organisations for their professionalism, copying their structures and using Western accounting companies to ensure organisational ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’. As such, the analyses of IIROSA and IICO’s presents us with numerous examples of how the two organisations navigate in between the cultures of development and Islamic aid, drawing on, rejecting, accommodating and merging different cultural repertoires, in the process perhaps contributing to creating new aid cultures.