Islamist NGOs an Integral Part of Muslim Societies

It has been all too easy, both inside the Muslim-dominated world and in the West, to dismiss Islamist organizations, i.e. those affiliated with parties advocating political Islam as opposed to those who have no political affiliation whatsoever. At best, they are described as 'charity networks,' a label which carries a lower 'status' than secular, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) usually providing practically the same services. At worst, they have been regarded as fronts for subversive activities and terrorism.

Needless to say, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and subsequent global developments have only reinforced many of these ideas. In fact these misperceptions have been extended to apply to all Islamic inter-governmental, governmental, and NGO development activities, thereby creating obstacles to Islamic development work, and rendering more complicated basic service provisions even in dire humanitarian situations — a complaint that Islamic Relief, one of the oldest agencies in this domain, has repeatedly indicated in its many appeals to the international community.

Yet, one of the lesser known facts in the Western world is that non-governmental means of organizing social support are a traditional staple in most parts of the world. In Muslim empires, a tax was levied on Muslims (the zakat). Although this would often go to the central authority’s coffers, it was not unusual to have situations where parts of this zakat and additional sadaka (voluntary donations) were given to community and local initiatives (often mosques) which were organized around charity purposes or social needs. Effectively, these are what we would today call NGOs.

This tradition of giving is especially prominent in countries where the existing centralized state structures are weak and/or are negatively impacted by crippling foreign debt payments, International Monetary Fund structural adjustment requirements, or conflict contexts. Areas in Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian territories, Somalia, the South of Sudan, Iraq, Aceh and others, have kept basic service provisions for their respective populations through thick and thin, precisely because they have that tradition of working non-governmental organizations.

Where governmental organizations have been unable to provide basic services, these NGOs have collectively and in diverse ways fulfilled some of the impending needs. Where communities have needed to survive, these NGOs have come through — again, in different ways and not always with flying colors. These service networks are also simultaneously (and perhaps ironically) buttresses for struggling states, since they fulfil functions that the states themselves fall short of, and form critical social forums which keep communities aware, informed, connected, and thus in many ways, empowered.

In countries torn by internal conflicts, it is not unusual to find that while communities may be killing each other, inside the clinics and schools, their members co-exist. In Lebanon for instance, at the height of the civil war when Muslims and Christians were fighting each other, and among themselves, many of their children were attending the same Catholic schools and sitting side by side. In Iraq immediately after the U.S. invasion, mosques and churches were serving the needy regardless of their sectarian affiliation.

These examples are not to say that it is only religious communities which serve in the Muslim world; in fact the number of NGOs (religious and non-religious) in the Arab world alone is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. But the religious background is important to indicate why it is that moderate Islamist organizations — with widespread and well-organized social service networks — have tended to garner much political support. They are seen as being able to put their money where their mouths are, and are building on a successful tradition of doing so. Altogether an attractive package deal, which should not be underestimated or misperceived as it is today.

It is precisely this ability to provide social services to all — regardless of credo or ethnic affiliation — which distinguishes the various Islamist groups, i.e. the political moderates from some of the more extreme groups. The latter do not tend to bother with social service provision as they single-mindedly pursue militant might through spectacular episodes of violence.

Breaking the cycle of generalizations about NGOs in Muslim-majority countries, which may in itself be contributing to covert activities in place of legitimate development assistance and negatively impacting the provision of basic needs, is necessary. This applies to grants and funding as well as NGO partnerships and collaboration. A deeper look into this tradition of NGOs within and amongst Islamist organizations provides a clearer idea who development counterparts can and should be, and a foundation upon which to build constructive and effective relationships.

Azza Karam, PhD, serves as a senior advisor to the United Nations Development Program’s Regional Bureau of Arab States in New York. This article was originally published by the Common Ground News Service.