Challenges to Studying Muslim Philanthropy in America – Conversations in Philanthropy # 4

As a student of philanthropy and specifically, Muslim/ Arab American giving, I am constantly struck by how little information there is, on the various aspects of giving. Despite a formidable 1400 years of history, there are not even 14 books that deal with the social, cultural, economic aspects of giving among Muslims, in a scholarly manner. This is shocking, but also offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand not only Muslim societies, but also the changes undergoing in some of the norms of giving, the aesthetic as well as pragmatic dimensions when it comes to giving and philanthropy. I also point out that in Western societies in particular, giving behavior among Muslims/ Arabs can help us understand  some of the tensions, trends in reformation in giving behavior, civic-engagement that are taking place, albeit slowly. 

Pic from: http://insideislam.wisc.edu/tag/ramadan/
Pic from: http://insideislam.wisc.edu/tag/ramadan/

                There are a few challenges to studying this phenomenon. The key ones being:

  1. Lack of baseline data
  2. Competing theories about giving, with very little data to back it up
  3. Adverse policy/ media environment
  4. Mis-information campaign by quasi-academics
  5. Lack of credible scholarship

Let’s look at each one, in brief to understand what is going on:

  1. Lack of baseline data: There is very little actual data, on which analysis can be done. By this I mean either quantitative studies that are conducted to document the giving patterns, priorities of concerns of American Muslims/ Arab Americans. The only nationally representative dataset that exists is at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, where I am interning this summer. This Center on philanthropy Panel Study data (COPPS) dataset is derived from a larger Panel Study on Income Data, maintained by the University of Michigan since the late 1950s. However, the biggest challenge with this data is the small sample size of Muslim families. Nevertheless, this is longitudinal data and has its uses!
  2. Competing theories about giving, with very little data to back it up – Given this context, there are several competing explanations about how, why and to what American Muslims/Arab Americans give money to. This is also a sensitive issue, that people are not comfortable talking about, given both the aesthetic and other concerns that this brings up.
  3. Adverse policy/ media environment – Especially post 9/11, several charities came under investigation and about six Muslim charities were shut down, in a campaign that has been denounced by civil liberty groups such as ACLU etc. This has had a profound impact on the giving patterns, some scholars and practitioners claim.

Looking at the giving data of the three largest Muslim charities in the U.S points to the opposite fact that in fact, giving to them increased several times, post these measures by the Department of Treasury. Also, media has not been very thorough in reporting/ writing about issues. Ignorance, bias against Muslims and Muslim charities reflects in much of the media coverage that occurs and there is a constant “othering” of NGOs’ and individuals that are engaged in this field.

4. Mis-information campaign by quasi-academics – There has been a concerted campaign by right-wing and extremely ideological groups such as the Clarion Project, which have gone on a rampage producing reports, quasi-academic publications that have linked every known Muslim organization with the Muslim brotherhood. While many serious academics do not accept this, this trend has unfortunately become part of the popular discourse in America. The Center for American Progress has highlighted this in their report Fear Inc. that came out about a year ago

5.Lack of credible scholarship – This is linked to all the points above. Unfortunately, not much scholarly attention has been paid to understanding how institutional building, humanitarian development and innovations in the field of giving, philanthropy is occurring in the Arab American/American Muslim groups.fundraisers for Syria scavenger hunt

While Zakat and Sadaqa remain one of the core tenets of the faith, not much attention has been paid to these aspects by academics or policy professionals. It is high time this happens, in a non-ideological and objective manner as the practices of American Muslims have the potential to impact development both domestically in the U.S and internationally as well. With increased awareness of disasters, growing cutbacks on federal and domestic agencies of social service, it is falling upon faith-based groups to do their part. And unless some of the negative stereotypes about Muslim charities are dispelled, their equal and full participation may not be possible. Don’t believe me? Just look at this article by IRIN, the United Nations newswire that points out to the roughly $ 200 billion to $ 1 trillion that are spent in Zakat money globally.

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