Nagham El Karhili presented an earlier version of this review at the 2017 Book Review Colloquium on Islamic and Middle East Studies organized by Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University.
Marie Juul Petersen, For Humanity or For the Umma? Aid and Islam in Transnational Muslim NGOs, London: Hurst Publishers; 2015, 356 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1849044325, ISBN-10: 1849044325. Reviewed by Nagham El Karhili
In her book, Marie Juul Petersen, a researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, offers a long overdue anthropological exploration of Muslim humanitarian organizations. The book is based on the author’s discourse analysis of her field research, and interviews with members of four Muslim NGOs (Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid, International Islamic Relief Organization, and the International Islamic Charitable Organization). Among others, the main goal of the book is to further understand the ways in which meanings are attributed to the terms ‘aid’ and ‘Islam’ in this field.
A Novel Approach
Clearly articulating her proposal at the start of the book, Petersen presents the reader with a different approach to the study of transnational Muslim NGOs that goes beyond the strict answer to the question of their religious identity. Here, Petersen avoids the use of these NGOs’ Muslim identity as her primary framework. Instead, she seeks to explore the sense making and building of Islamic identity within these organizations through recognizing the tangled dialectic move between western development aid and Islamic resurgence. Her book comes as a complementary and corrective piece to previous studies on this topic which gravitated towards the fields of political science, international relations, and development studies, and kept the focus on rather simple questions around the benefits of NGOs as development and aid actors.
“Petersen presents the reader with a different approach to the study of transnational Muslim NGOs that goes beyond the strict answer to the question of their religious identity.”
This approach studied NGOs as instruments rather than autonomous actors actively engaged in the production of meaning through a variety of ways for self-identity. The latter approach is the basis of an anthropological method chosen by Petersen. For Humanity or for the Umma? seeks to “challenge not only literature on Muslim NGOs as fronts for terrorist networks or political organizations, but also literature casting these organizations as so called ‘faith-based organizations,’ placing them within the field of international humanitarian development and aid” (3). Towards that end, the author offers us a practical guide through this sector with a few tools such as a basic history of Muslim charities, key statistics of the sector, and clear definitions for central terms such as ideology and Muslim NGOs.
“…the author offers us a practical guide through this sector with a few tools such as a basic history of Muslim charities, key statistics of the sector, and clear definitions for central terms such as ideology and Muslim NGOs.”
Religion and humanitarian aid are intrinsically linked in modern global culture. Literature, across multiple disciplines, points to the foundation of a common or associated religious identity that transcends national borders as extremely powerful. Furthermore, this is usually supplemented with a wide-spread belief that faith-based organizations are more honest than their openly secular counterparts in the field. It is also generally believed that Muslim humanitarian groups are positioned gatekeepers for a range of transnational actors operating in and around conflict zones. As such, they are uniquely positioned to provide relief to the most vulnerable victims of war and forced migration.
“Religion and humanitarian aid are intrinsically linked in modern global culture.”Moreover, they possess the potential to contribute to building the civil and economic foundations necessary for long-lasting resilience. But what kind of aid do they provide? What is the role of Islam in this? What are the processes that allow them to operationalize religion in their work? Are they to be trusted? Petersen’s work successfully answers these questions through her analysis of Muslim NGOs and their ideologies before and after September 11.
Contextual and Theoretical Framework
The first two chapters, “Studying Transnational Muslim NGOs” and “The Cultures of Development and Islamic Aid,” take the initial step into the analysis of transnational Muslim NGOs by providing a contextual and theoretical framework through a closer look at the cultures of development and Islamic aid and the trajectories of transnational NGOs. Here, the reader is presented with two separate aid cultures: (secular) development and aid, and (religious) Islamic aid. The latter one deals with a historical description of the cultures of Islamic aid and development all the way from their colonial roots to the institutionalization of the development system. Fortunately, Petersen spares us the mere summarization of dates, figures, and events. Rather, she highlights the complexities, fluidity, and changing processes within this historical context.
“Petersen spares us the mere summarization of dates, figures, and events. Rather, she highlights the complexities, fluidity, and changing processes within this historical context.”This comes as a breath of fresh air as the development and aid field typically follows antiquated theories of modernization focused on equating religion to a traditional aging force and portraying religious NGOs as rather static actors. The third chapter moves to a focus on defining historical moments that have shaped the identity of Muslim NGOs in relation to aid cultures. The chapter isolates four historical markers from the famine in the Horn of Africa, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Bosnia, all the way to the September 11 attacks. Petersen teases out the changing and shifting relations between transnational Muslim NGOs and what she calls ‘main development.’
Secularized and Sacrilized Aid Organizations
Following the set-up of theory and context, the next chapter concerns itself with the discussions on secularized and sacrilized aid organizations. More specifically, the chapter entitled “Piety and Professionalism: Claims to Authority in IIROSA and IICO,” is a case study of International Islamic Relief Organization (IIROSA) and the International Islamic Charitable Organization (IICO). Both organizations are directly linked to very authoritative Islamic figures and seen as part of pan-Islamist movements with strong religious credentials. Furthermore, they both claim to have religious authority by emphasizing their religious knowledge and promoting religious practices. In the meantime, their professional authority is established through transparency and investment in research on aid and development. The fifth chapter, “‘It’s All in Islam!’ Aid Ideologies in IIROSA and IICO,” focuses on the ways in which these organizations conceptualize aid and Islam. According to the author, in these religious organizations, the aid is seen as “fundamentally sacred” (110).
“Petersen explains that these organizations are seen as the ‘picture perfect’ cases of Muslim charities….”
The next sections of the book focus on secularized aid ideologies of Muslim charities. Chapter six, “Professionalism and (a bit) of Piety,” introduces case studies of Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid as moderate organizations. Both organizations in question do not consider themselves to be primarily ‘Islamic,’ per se. Rather, they emphasize their professional identity in opposition to their Islamic identity by displaying themselves as international relief and development charities first, and Muslim second. This is reflected in all of the communication language around both organizations, along with their clear efforts to integrate into the larger development framework through strategic public relations campaigns. Petersen explains that these organizations are seen as the ‘picture perfect’ cases of Muslim charities: they win awards, collaborate with other faith based and secular organizations, keep high professional standards, follow protocol, and integrate into the larger development and aid sector.
According to the findings presented in these chapters, the dominant view that Muslim NGOs are a monolithic bloc existing largely in parallel with and unconnected to secular/Northern/Western humanitarian NGOs is often in harsh contrast to the empirical realities on the ground. The author does an admirable job of illustrating how the four organizations chosen as case studies present two different kinds of ideologies, and rest on different conceptions of aid and Islam along with different interpretations of the cultures of Islamic aid and development. “
“According to the findings presented in these chapters, the dominant view that Muslim NGOs are a monolithic bloc existing largely in parallel with and unconnected to secular/Northern/Western humanitarian NGOs is often in harsh contrast to the empirical realities on the ground.”At times it seems that the proposal of the book lies between the two words of Muslim and NGO. Which one comes first? Which one matters most? The sacrilized or the secularized? The author argues that these processes of sacralisation and secularization of aid are not straightforward or unambiguous, but have been constantly challenged and changed depending on a variety of factors.
“Through her nontraditional approach, Petersen is able to stay away from the usual reductionist, instrumental understanding of these NGOs, and the normative approach that lacks nuance and depth.”Petersen reaches her goal to “better understand the underlying aid ideologies guiding and motivating people and the organizations they work in” (167). Although the work sometimes falls into the dichotomies and categories that the author attempts to steer away from by using a nontraditional approach, Petersen’s anthropological work is able to stay away from the usual reductionist, instrumental understanding of these NGOs, and the normative approach that lacks nuance and depth. This book is extremely important for those who study faith-based NGOs and helps them to understand the ways in which Muslim NGOs bridge Islamic and secular aid cultures. Overall, it is a very important and timely contribution to the literature on Muslim NGOs.