Do we Need to Re-examine the History of Humanitarian Aid?

I recently came across an article about the Ottoman Empire’s aid to Ireland during the great Potato Famine[i] in the 1840s. The article points out that the Ottoman sultan, Sultan Khaleefah Abdul-Majid I declared his intention to send £10,000 to aid Ireland’s farmers. However, the British did not like this idea and even forced the ships that had food and other aid to take a diversion, before they could reach Ireland. This little known fact in history not only challenges our assumption about Humanitarian aid’s origins – it is assumed that World War I was the precursor to global humanitarian aid, as we know it – and also challenges us to re-think ideas of cooperation between ‘nations,’ before ‘nation-states’ emerged.

Photo courtesy : Today's zaman
Photo courtesy : Today’s zaman

This inspiring story of aid from a Muslim country to a predominantly Catholic nation is not only a great example of ecnumenism in history, but also an example of how creatively people in the past (and in the present day, as well) think of charity as a great leveler between people. Charity can not only expand boundaries of cooperation, build goodwill; but also aid in ‘soft-power’ as we know it.  With this example, one is forced to ask: are our ideas of the evolution of international humanitarianism in the West – in particular, in the development of Red Cross Movement in the 19th century – in need of revision? Second, a related question: Do we also need to re-think the supposed benefits of this ‘aid,’ and question whether it is beneficial, in all cases?

In my own research on religious and ethnic based giving in the U.S., I have seen examples of what Amy Singer in her book Charity in Islamic Societies (2008) has called a ‘Mixed-economy of charity,’ meaning a collaboration between wealthy individuals, government as well as groups of organizations or NGOs addressing specific issues. Private Foundations have become important, especially in the modern era, with the rise of mega-millionaires and billionaires, who have enormous amounts of disposable incomes. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation and others like these have contributed enormously to addressing issues of global health, poverty and education. While their impact is also questioned by those who call into question the manner in which they work, the power-relations between them and the local governments/ recipients; it is an empirical reality that they have an impact, which for the most part is helping address some key challenges in these regions. However, this narrative is clearly one-sided and reinforces our stereotypes of the ‘under-developed,’ third-world, in need of constant attention and ‘help,’ from the West. While true to a limited extent, this narrative of ‘development,’ assistance does not take into account the local efforts, resources and strategies that are being deployed by local organizations and foundations in the countries where they operate. Can this example of Ottoman generosity in the 19th century help us re-think this narrative?

We are certainly living in an inter-connected world, where flow of capital, people and ideas is truly global. But this globalized view of the world does put in place certain dynamics of power and discourses of how and who needs ‘help,’ that can skew the ‘reality,’ of what is going on, in our world. As critical theorists like Arturo Escobar in Encountering Development (1996) and others have pointed out, this ‘development narrative,’ needs a close examination. I would suggest that we re-examine this narrative with the perspective of those who are at the ‘receiving end,’ of the beneficence or generosity, rather than the one who is doing the donating. This discourse, Escobar argues has led to the ‘debt crisis, massive underdevelopment and impoverishment, untold exploitation and oppression.’ (p.4). While I do not share his pessimism fully, I do think that we need to re-think the amount of ‘good,’ that discourse of aid, development etc. The promise of aid must be measured in real terms, in terms of the impacts that it has had on the people it supposedly serves.

Escobar places this dynamic in the politics of ‘representation,’ and argues that there has been a ‘colonization of reality,’ using Orientalism, Africanism and Developmentalism – three strategies to represent the ‘developing,’ world. The ways that the under-developed world is supposed to ‘develop,’ have been defined, outlined and strategized by ‘experts,’ who wield inordinate power in terms of defining the discourse. The problem with this is that the Western discourses do not take into account (in most cases) the local dynamics, cultural knowledge systems and ways of organizing life, which may not fit the epistemology of the West. Local forms of philanthropy, charity and solidarity – through faith-based giving or ethnic solidarity and mobilization could be considered another area where there needs to be greater appreciation and lesser ‘intervention.’

Finally, on a related note, I think a better understanding of faith-based giving can also help us tackle some of the assumptions we have about what this form of giving can and cannot do. While it is preposterous to assume that faith-based giving can ‘fix all our problems,’ it would be imprudent to also shut it out of the public sphere, for fear of contaminating the ‘secular,’ public sphere with religious values. Given that our world is witnessing a ‘return to religion,’ as Jonathan Benthall has called it; with greater religious symbolism in the public sphere, it would be wise to accept this reality and manage the consequences of how this philanthropy can play out.

As regards Islamic philanthropy, while one Caliphate in the Middle East (ISIS) claims to be ‘Islamic,’ yet, commits acts that are clearly anti-Islamic in spirit and form; there is a much better example in the Ottoman Empire, which did allow for the creative and productive use of charity and philanthropy. While by no means perfect, it did follow many of the common-sense principles that made life liveable for most of its citizens. A fact well attested to by scholars and beneficiaries of the aid to Ireland.


[i] See

Escobar, A (1996). Encountering Development – Making and unmaking of the third-world. Princeton University Press

Singer, A (2008). Charity in Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press.

When Indians pretended to be ‘White’: Conflation of race and identity as a very ‘American’ phenomenon

In early 20th century, when immigration laws excluded Asians from immigrating to the U.S., some creative Indians claimed they were indeed White, when they landed on the U.S. shores. They were landless laborers, who had landed on the shores of California, looking for work and were surprised to find themselves in this predicament. Kambiz Ghaneabassiri mentions the curious case of an individual, who argued for this, in the courts and won. In his book The History of Islam in America (2010), Ghaneabassiri suggests that this immigrant’s argument in court was that Indians, being from the Aryan race are white and should be treated as such. Barring them from entering the U.S. on their slightly darker complexion is unfair, the plaintiff argued; and won the case. Is this a case of racial appropriation? Yes, absolutely. Historically, this has occurred in the U.S., with race, ethnicity and religion being conflated – all the time.

Photo courtesy :
Photo courtesy :

Coming closer to the case that is making headlines today: Rachel Dolezal, the White woman who pretended to be black. Why is her identity-appropriation wrong? I think the biggest strike against her is this: She used her black identity when it suited her and for material gains. She apparently sued Howard University for not giving her a Graduate Assistant position, according to this report. Even in recent media interviews, she has not convincingly presented her case. All she comes across is as an opportunist, who saw the benefit of being black, and sought to label herself as such. While her intentions in terms of studying black culture, adopting it, taking care of kids who are black may all well be genuine, but her behavior as regards her professional advancement seems a bit ingenuous.  But is there all to it, or are we mixing up two different questions here : One of a person lying to advance their career and another – a far more complex one – of how people define their identities and how we, the people react to it.

Consider the counter-intuitive scenario: What if Dolezal is the sign of things to come? Academics, scholars of race and identity – from Stuart Hall, the famous British critical theorist to our very own Clifford Geertz and a host of thinkers including Michel Foucault have argued that identity is a ‘fluid’ construct. Albert Melucci, who is famous for his work on collective identities argues for identity to be a ‘work in progress,’ and not a fixed construct, as we see it. Also, take the case of mixed-race families and kids born of those unions. Which race do they actually belong? As the Pew Research report argues, the number of bi-racial couples is increasing and also acceptance of interracial marriages is at a high of 87 percent in 2013, up from four percent in 1959. The Pew Research further argues that this does not justify Dolezal’s fraud, but it does bring into question how mixed race couples talk about their own identity and that of others.

If one considers identity as a ‘social construct,’ and indeed race is a social construct; then it means that what a certain race means and how it is understood is constantly changing. As Burger and Luckmann (1966) remind us, identity is ‘formed by social processes,’and is not a static phenomenon. As an example, the way that any American black groups has socialized in America has continued to shape their own subjective notions of what it means to be American and Muslim at the same time. The changing social relations among Muslim groups and other mainstream groups can be seen as having a significant impact on how American Muslim identity is ‘created’ and ‘managed.’

Historically, this ‘creation of identity,’ and self-appropriation of identity has occurred and this debate about one’s group identity – and also individual identity, is being contested ; as we speak. Just take the case of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. – a topic I am intimately familiar with. In the case of Arabs, they had to define their identity in terms of the paradigms of identity offered to them in the U.S., and they chose a ‘White’ identity. With a legal case in 1915, Syrians became legally recognized as such. Infact, only recently is there a push by some activists and groups to call for a ‘Middle eastern’ ethnicity to be added to the U.S. census and there is momentum to test this idea, as this report points out.

So, what is the moral of the story and point of all this debate? I would say that as far as Dolezal’s ‘self-identification,’ is concerned; she is free to choose to identify as anything she wants. Indeed, the U.S. allows one to do that – with freedom. The case of Caitlyn Jenner, Chelsea Manning and others illustrate this all too well. Infact, the American public sentiment is in support of such self-identification, no matter how absurd it may seem, to a conservative. There are far more sympathetic voices cheering them on, rather than pulling them down. What went wrong in Dolezal’s case was not her just her self-identification, but her (apparent) lying and manipulation of her identity, to suit her professional and personal ambitions. This, the public opinion is going after. And from the sound of it, and from the facts before us, I don’t think they are wrong. It is about time she admits that she screwed up. No point pretending to be the victim, anymore.

How to tell someone they are wrong

I got  into an argument with a friend just yesterday. The topic was U.S. Foreign policy in the Middle East. While I do have strong ideas about this issue, so did my friend – who is a Veteran. We had a few strong exchanges and clarified our positions, in no uncertain terms. But after my friend said something along the lines of ‘You didn’t have to be so condescending,’ it occurred to me that I was  perhaps coming across as such, while not meaning to.

For those who know me, know that I tend to refer a few books in every ‘informed,’ conversation I have. It is an old habit and I believe it is better to base arguments in facts, opinions and ideas that have been well thought out, and often books have such reservoir of ideas. So, I make liberal use in referencing them. It helps that I enjoy reading and often have read a book that is at least tangentially related to any discussion at hand. Also, I realize that some people don’t take to this too kindly, thinking that either :

a. I am showing off that I have read these books

b. Pretending to know more than them

c. Being a pretentious SOB, just for the heck of it

In any case, it doesn’t help my cause. If my intention is to win an argument, then perhaps I had already won it. But the point of having informed discussions isn’t just winning arguments. It is also about genuinely reaching an understanding and helping the ‘other’ see one’s viewpoint. Towards this, I have often learnt that the best thing to do is to stop arguing.

In some cases, I have drawn back the aggressiveness and appealed to the person’s reason or higher intellect – assuming it exists.

When people are angry, defensive or plan excited, they don’t listen. And similar to yesterday’s experience, I have been in far too many situations where I have learnt that even if I win an argument, I may lose the person’s attention. So, better to tone down and try to reason, while keeping the other persons’ perspective in mind. IN other words, trying to be more empathetic.

So, that seems to be the lesson I learnt yesterday: The best way to tell someone they are wrong is not to tell them that. Rather, it is better to help them think through their position with more care and attention. For this, they must be empathetic to your viewpoint. For this to happen, you must tone down, relax and let them reach out to you, at their pace. Empathy is the name of the game.

I am still learning.