What can Islam teach secular NGOs about conflict resolution? (and human development, climate change, gender rights…..)

Lucy Moore, a policy adviser at Islamic Relief Worldwide came to talk to Oxfam staff last week. We used the ‘in conversation’ format, along the lines of my recent chat withconflict-toolkit2-790x320 Jamie Love, which seems to work better than the standard powerpoint + Q&A.

Islamic Relief has some really interesting publications on Islamic approaches to human development, gender and development, and in Lucy’s case, ‘conflict transformation’ (which I think means making it better, rather than worse…). She came to Oxfam to present Working in Conflict: A Faith Based Toolkit for Islamic Relief, and its shorter ‘Introduction for external agencies’ (7 pages + 3 page glossary of Islamic terms – v handy).

Lucy’s work points up some of the benefits of working within a faith perspective (most of these apply to other religions just as much as Islam):

Legitimacy: research by the World Bank and others consistently underlines the importance of their faith in poor people’s lives, and that they trust their religious institutions far more than they trust governments, NGOs or anyone else. But if your approach is secular, legalistic, evidence-based and rationalist (all good things, right?), don’t expect it to resonate – it will sound alien to the lives of an awful lot of the people you are trying to help. Take this quote from IR’s work in Yemen:

‘While the trainer was making reference to the UN and international human rights, a participant responded by saying that Islam addressed human rights 1400 years ago… Another participant stood up and said they (the trainees) would not believe or trust any book or material not related to Islamic concepts.’

Islamic Relief Blue.jpeg

Collective v Individual: Faith-based approaches often emphasize the importance of the collectivity – community, family etc, over the individual. There are problems with this approach (I’ll come to those), but with regards to some areas like resolving conflicts or climate change (stewardship – the duty this generation owes to future generations), I suspect collective approaches are more likely to work. Discuss.

The importance of ritual: ‘Rituals play an important part in conflict resolution’ – secular agencies often underestimate the importance of ritual in the people’s lives. Not so, faith groups.

Restorative rather than retributive justice: Lucy’s paper states that Islamic theology is very clear that ‘reconciliation and restorative justice is preferable’ to retribution and that wrongdoing creates obligations to ‘make things right’. Shame not everyone is listening – this seems a world away from some of the punishments meted out in the name of Islam.

On obligation to take action on injustice (and not just speak or think about it): According to a well-known Hadith (saying or tradition of the Prophet): “Whosoever of you sees an injustice, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.” And I don’t think ‘with his hand’ includes clicktivism……

Lucy’s advice to secular NGOs wishing to work with faith groups was a) don’t start pretending you’re a theologian; engage with faith leaders instead and b) treat them as ‘architects’ not just ‘gatekeepers’ (when I asked staff in DRC if we worked with faith groups they said ‘sure, we get the priests to distribute our leaflets’. Oops)

So much for the positives, but there were (unsurprisingly) some pretty big concerns.

Firstly, IR seems to understand social capital better than power. The emphasis on community and family is fine when power is equally distributed, but what if the community victimizes some of its members, or husbands abuse wives, or parents beat up their children? The introduction for external agencies was particularly feeble on gender: ‘while social norms do typically exclude [women and youth] from decision-making processes, it is important to be aware that they are likely to be marginalised from the decision making process, while simultaneously utilising alternative avenues of influence and communication.’ Sorry, but I don’t buy this, if it’s saying that backchannels (conversations over the dinner table?) are a substitute for explicit power over decisions.

Secondly, while IR emphasizes the importance of ‘faith literacy’ and paints a remarkably positive picture of Islam, the dissonance with what I see on the news is vast. Even allowing for the bias of Western media, I see few signs of a search for harmony and restorative justice in the Muslim world right now, which seems to be home to a disproportionate number of the world’s conflicts.

But (to end on a positive), another striking aspect of Islam is its willingness to evolve according to changing contexts, and to incorporate local customary law (provided it volsdoesn’t contradict fundamental principles). That at least bodes well for IR’s effort to blend the legitimacy and social roots provided by faith, with the search for empowerment and human development. And respect to Lucy for a) braving a bunch of rights-based headbangers, and b) giving a lunchtime talk in the middle of Ramadan (though I did ask people not to bring sandwiches…..)

I also have a feeling she might want the last word on this topic – over to her (and everyone else)

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10 Responses to “What can Islam teach secular NGOs about conflict resolution? (and human development, climate change, gender rights…..)”
  1. Mark Deasey

    Having worked for three years in an Islamic organisation (Muslim Aid) as a non-Muslim (Quaker, to get specific), I found this a really good reflection. The question that arises for me now, as then, is how much of what is cited as specifically Islamic is to do with the tenets of the faith as such; and how much to the state of evolution of the society in which it is practised – much of middle-class Islam as I experienced it in Indonesia felt remarkably similar to church-based social organisation in Australia in the 1960s. Nearly all the virtues, and the failings, had parallels that could be quickly identified.

    One thing I did find refreshing and interesting was the approach to micro-finance. Specifically, it is stated that the very poorest should be given grants, not loans; there is no attempt at the neo-liberal fiction that everyone can succeed in the free enterprise market, and the more affluent have a specific duty to subsidise the poorer. Islamic systems are practised as well or as poorly as any other kind, but the theories at least seemed more realistic.

  2. Mansoor

    Thanks Duncan for the blog. There is a lot in the blog to ponder and reflect. What I really appreciate that this blogs open discussion on faiths, which we have now stopped discussing collectively. A recent conversation on BBC radio concluded that, it is really important to support convesations like this in the UK for muslim young generation and do not entirely leave this to current structures and leadership. Well done!

  3. Rachel

    I am SO glad people are starting to engage with different types of organisations, not just ones similar to themselves. There needs to be a greater engagement with a broader range of organisations – particuarly faith-based/community-central organisations that have a history of engagement within the community, such as churches (particularly prior to disaster relief situations, as some recent research I have undertaken has shown).
    A broader range of partnerships allow, as mentioned above, the understanding, knowledge and skills to be shared in order for the aid to be distributed as good as possible for the benefit of the recipeients – surely the most important thing. It baffles me that organisations still dont engage with the community or faith based organisations, purely because the faith is different. I am sure there is the opportunity for many pro-active, partnership ways that would facilitate aid disribution so much more.

  4. Caroline Sweetman

    Thanks Duncan for a very fair account of an interesting session. A few things came up for me, from being at the event where Lucy spoke, and from your post:

    It’s very, very important to take in the first insight you opened your blog with – that faith communities will not engage with overtly secular pronouncements or programmes from ‘on high’ – i.e. from top down outsiders coming in to say what needs doing without consultation or involvement. Good development involves the women and men in a community coming up with an initiative which is then resourced by a development organisation. If it looks like an irrelevant outside imposition of course it isn’t going to work – for anyone.

    But this is NOT NEW, and not an insight unique to the present moment or to debates about faith (for which, can we not say ‘religion’? Faith is something we all need, with or without any religious beliefs!). Robert Chambers, and many, many more, pointed out the need for development to be locally defined and designed, way back – and the discussions at the session you discuss here reflected for me how far we have to go to ensure that this happens.

    What we must not allow however – and I mean all of us who have ‘faith’ in human development, whether of a religious belief or none – is to take our eyes off the ball here by rehashing the romantic and mistaken notion that communities are homogenous and the interests of individuals can be best met by conformity, with a respect for the good of the group over-riding a respect for the good of the (many) sub-groups and individuals who, through no fault of their own, cannot conform – or do not want to conform, and want to move their society past a point where abuses and punishments face people whose faces, bodies and desires do not fit. For me therefore it is really important to read your point about collective rights NOT trumping ideas of individual rights – whether or not they come from Islam or from human rights.

    But once again, this is far from new, and just reflects how poor we are at taking notice of past experience – why do we think we HAVE the notion of human rights? And why have the vast majority of countries signed up to their principles? Because the whole world was once run on notions of communal good, and gradually we noticed this meant some people were abused and suffered, and as human beings, didn’t deserve this fate.

    Once again, the development literature has a long, long list of voices on this point too – not only the women’s rights literature, but the critiques of the myth of a monolithic, harmonious ‘community’ and – more radically yet – the critiques even of the ‘participation’ that as you say, the materials from Islamic relief are saying women don’t yet have the right to join in anyway.

    Finally, I was a little unnerved by Lucy’s comment about what we have to learn from outsiders – as I recall, she said that international human rights as a notion is as foreign to these ‘religious communities’ she talked of as the notion of Hindu ideas about ‘do no harm’. Ideas which challenge our own ideas of how ‘we’ do things are often welcome – especially to oppressed groups within our communities who aren’t finding their interests met too well by the dominant views in their own communities. These critiques of ‘tradition’ may come from artists in our own communities, from outsiders visiting us (whoever and wherever we are) – the key insight here is that if the outsiders have all the power and the money it isn’t an even-handed and fair encounter, but an imposition of ideas and values and strategies. At which point, see earlier up my post – it’s about respect for bottom-up development – but this is not the same thing as development-in-a-vacuum, where a false idea of monolithic communities living pristine lives which have never and must never be changed by encounters with other ‘outside ideas’ could lead to outcomes nobody would see as progressive and supportive of just outcomes.

    So I’m saying, I think, that this is old wine in new bottles. And hoping we listen to the important insight that top-down power is still being misused in the name of development, but don’t embrace myths of communities set in aspic which can benefit in no way from any challenge from within, or outside, on the way outcasts and misfits are treated. In the meantime I am glad we have secular development agencies who will perhaps support those people whose own families and communities require them to conform to practices and beliefs they cannot share.

  5. Mansoor

    I agree with Caroline and reading Sufism for these reasons, which I think offers some very practical solutions and self training to ‘get rid of power and control’ issues. In summary it ask for; be the change; continouos self improvement; listening and learning; overcoming egos; overcoming fear and insecurities and ready to change position and topics. Self change is important for many of us.

    Easterley offers a great review on the importance of individuals rights and problems with what we call ‘community organisation’ – worth a read.

  6. Lucy V. Moore

    Hi Duncan, big thanks to Oxfam for such an open discussion last week and opening up the discussion here. If I can just clarify a couple of points:

    “The emphasis on community and family is fine when power is equally distributed, but what if the community victimises some of its members”… We’re currently developing theologically grounded positions on tackling these very issues – watch this space, they will be published on the Islamic Relief Policy Website. We suggest that where communities do feel that harmful practices are sanctioned by Islam, this needs to be handled in a sensitive manner – but point well taken that this needs further development in the toolkit itself.

    “Sorry, but I don’t buy this, if it’s saying that backchannels (conversations over the dinner table?) are a substitute for explicit power over decisions”… In short, no, that’s not what it is saying. Plugging into such channels is a way to help ensure women and youth are heard and their perspective less marginalised, locate appropriate entry points and avoid reducing or ignoring the power that people choose to exercise already. Not as a substitute for true equality and empowerment…

    “IR emphasizes the importance of ‘faith literacy’ and paints a remarkably positive picture of Islam… I see few signs of a search of harmony and restorative justice in the Muslim world right now”… Yes, we do offer a positive approach to the role of faith – what else can you expect from an FBO! 

    I feel you are making my point – isn’t a lack of faith literacy one of the reasons why faith is appropriated towards violence? This very lack of faith literacy has been reported across militant Islamic groups from Syria and Iraq to Nigeria.

    To my mind, what is needed is fewer conversations about the ‘peaceful nature of religions’ and more about the very explicit guidance on ethical behaviour in conflict available to people of faith. Hence inclusion of the section on ‘Islamic Guidelines on behaviour in conflict’ in the toolkit. Showing the positive that is possible at the grassroots in no way seeks to deny the problems of extremism. Perhaps that’s our mistake for assuming that this would be implicit. 

    I sincerely hope this is the next word, not the last one!

  7. Abdullah

    Considering the importance you (Duncan, for clarity) place upon individual agency and on supporting individual choice, it seems rather odd that you’d also hold a faith practiced by those with whom you work with in suspect (correct me if I am mistaken, you stated: “paints a remarkably positive picture of Islam, the dissonance with what I see on the news is vast. Even allowing for the bias …”). Why I find that somewhat concerning is that approximately a fifth of humanity practice the faith, and Pew research finds it is taken quite seriously; 93% of Muslims globally fast the month of Ramadan and the vast majority of whom pray daily, which was found to be unrelated to gender, income or literacy.

    I would have anticipated that your approach might have been something along the lines of recognizing areas of shared values and building collaboration – not specifically with this speaker or Islamic Relief, but with the individuals, communities and countries where Oxfam works. The stance that comes out from that comment in the post (‘Sounds good, but I don’t buy it’), seems to oppose some of the core values outlined in your book. Respect, dignity and individual agency to name a few.

    • Duncan Green

      Then I clearly haven’t explained myself very well Abdullah, apologies. The point of the piece is exactly to say that non-religious NGOs need to think and understand much more about the role of faith in people’s lives, but also to explore some of the tensions – for example between individual and collective rights. The bit I ‘don’t buy’ is in that area – the suggestion that explicit empowerment of women is unnecessary because they have other channels of influence.

      • Abdullah

        That is an important concern – having not attended I do not know what was said about this. It seems the author is working on other documents of this nature and I won’t speak for her. In normal circumstances Islamic jurisprudence does not allow for the rights of the individual to be overturned based on the interest of the collective. An example of this in the development realm can be applied to women’s right to tenure – this individual right is protected at face value, and would only be challenged in exceptional cases based upon collective rights. Any individual that takes such property illegally is to be held accountable in a court of law. Ensuring women have these rights, empowering them to be active citizens and be active agents in asserting their rights, is certainly something supported, if not required, by the faith. Much more could be said here, in brief the interaction between individual and collective rights is more complex that it appears to have been explained and/or understood and requires additional discussion.

  8. Mark Deasey

    My experience in both Islamic and Christian faith-based organisations has been that the principles of the faith are an effective tool in arguing and developing approach and policy; and that these can be as dynamic as in any secular organisation. Precisely the questions of individual vs collective rights /priorities; women’s right to a voice and control of income, I have heard vigorously and articulately argued from an explicitly faith perspective.

    In traditional Islamic charity, there is a heavy emphasis on hand-out aid, particularly during Ramadhan and at ‘Eid ul-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice. I have frequently heard this debated and questioned entirely within an Islamic faith perspective, along with several other supposed givens within Islamic charity practice. I have heard it put forcefully that the command to almsgiving implies the economic empowerment of the poor, not just temporary succour.

    Similar debates, of course, are long established within Christian charities (or at least, between them), so should not cause any surprise when discovered in another faith tradition.

    To all those who are celebrating, ‘Eid Mubarak