Egypt and the Challenge of Islam in the Public Sphere

“Know that you can have three sorts of relations with princes, governors and oppressors. The first and worst is that you visit them, the second and better is that they visit you, and the third and surest that you stay far from them, so that neither you see them nor they see you.” – Abu Hamid Muhammad Al Ghazzali. (d.1111)

While Ghazzali’s advise seems apt for all those Islamic leaders who are interested in ‘preserving Islam’ and ‘Islamic ethics’ in any society, the reality is quite different. Almost every time a religious group has come to power, it gravitates to acquire more power, hence becoming more ‘worldly’ than spiritual. This trend has remained somewhat consistent: from the Catholic Church to Islamist parties in Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and the rest, though some are more restrained than the others. The question that is on several people’s mind is this: Should Muslim Brotherhood (MB) still be part of the political landscape in Egypt? Despite the ban on MB and being labelled a ‘terrorist’ outfit, should the group and its cadre be allowed to participate in the political sphere? These are some questions that will continue to haunt both the Egyptian people as well as the international community. While the ground realities in Egypt preclude any rational dialogue and much of the decision making seems to be taking place in the realm of realpolitik and the struggle for survival is dictating the tactical steps that the Egyptian ruling elite is taking; strategic foresight in this case requires a different approach.

Photo credit : Muslimvillage.com
Photo credit : Muslimvillage.com

As the New York Times reported about the bomb blasts in Cairo today, “A crowd of more than 200 people was demonstrating in support of General Sisi and against the Muslim Brotherhood. “The people want the execution of the Brotherhood,” they chanted, waving Egyptian flags and holding signs depicting a profile of General Sisi in dark sunglasses against the profile of a lion, or, in other posters, of a hawk.” The mood in the country is anything but calm and factions supporting the General and those on the side of MB have become more entrenched.

Jose Casanova, one of the most eminent theorists of Sociology of religion points out, the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ religion is one of the key points of contention from a secular perspective. But he is careful to delineate the differences between the types of secularizations, which he identifies as being of three kinds: secularization as separation of state and religion, secularization as decline of religious practices and secularization as marginalization of religion to a privatized sphere. He has argued for the public inclusion of religious parties in the political sphere. His is a slightly complicated argument, but one worthy of examination.

I quote Casanova at length, where he points to the benefits of public religion: “The public impact of religious critiques should not be measures in terms of the ability of any religion to impose its agenda upon society or to press its global normative claims upon the autonomous spheres. In modern differentiated societies it is both unlikely and undesirable that religion should again play the role of systematic normative integration. But by crossing boundaries, by raising questions publicly about the autonomous pretentions of the differentiated spheres to function without regard to moral norms or human considerations, public religions may help to mobilize people against such pretentions, they may contribute to a redrawing of boundaries, or, at the least, they may force or contribute to a public debate about such issues. Like feminist critiques or like republican virtue critiques of modern developments, they will have functioned as counterfactual normative critiques.” This is a critique that many secularists in Egypt are not able to heed. Perhaps the atmosphere has become too vitiated and the camps so entrenched in their views that any discussion of alternatives seems impossible.

As Casanova points out further, the fusion of the ‘Church’ and ‘State’ that took place in the Christian domain is exceptional and the only case. Once the Western Roman Empire disintegrated, it became a salvation religion with the political structure of an imperial state. There is no reason to believe that Islam or any other religion will go this route, even with the establishment of religious communities in charge, politically. Casanova argued for the maintenance of Secularism in terms of differentiation between religion and state, and institutions and religion. Within that religion can have a role to play in public sphere, with some conditions.

New York Times also reported in a short statement posted online, the Brotherhood said it “strongly condemns the cowardly bombings in Cairo, expresses condolences to the families of those killed, demands swift investigations.” It blamed the “coup authorities” for deteriorating security and the failure to apprehend the perpetrators of previous bombings. While this may be seen as a way to wash their hands off any blame, there is growing suspicion that the MB was in some way involved. While these debates are ongoing and it will be years, if not decades, before there is any consensus on how best to deal with opposition parties in the country; it is important to remember, that, as Talal Asad points out the history of how Secularism came to be part of the discourse in the Muslim world. In Egypt, the introduction of European laws, in lieu of Shari’ah in the 19th century was a precursor that finally lead to the total unification of state power and abolition of the dual structure of courts, in favor of European-derived laws. This, he points out was partly as a result of European coercion and also Egyptian elite’s infatuation with European ways. The Islamists urge to gain power of the state and bring back the Shari’ah laws should be understood in this context. There is also great anger that the democratically elected government of Mr.Morsi was ousted by a coup. So, it is back to square one, for the Egyptians.

This is not to say that there is just one conception of Islam and the state. There are also devout Muslims and scholars, who have called for a ‘Secular state.’ Abdullahi An’naim, another scholar of Islam has pointed out in Islam and the Secular state that by a secular state, he means “A state that is neutral regarding religious doctrine, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shari’ah – the religious law of Islam – simply because compliance with Sharia cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials.” He further points out that it is perfectly possible for a Muslim majority state to be secular and yet remain true to Islam. In fact, this is what is needed in our modern era, when pluralism is a fact of life and homogenous populations in most countries is a thing of the past. “As a means to being religious, I need the state to remain secular,” he adds. An’naim has argued that the future of Shari’ah law is a secular state. By this he means that a state that represents Islamic ethos is one in which there is no fear of favor of any one particular religion and this in essence means a secular state.

An’naim’s is a radically different take on Islamic societies. His vision may be more applicable in our times, where any mention of religion in the public sphere is bound to raise suspicions. Although this vision requires buy-in from all parties, he does see a role for Islamist parties to participate in the political sphere. Afterall, they should not be barred from the political sphere, just because of their religious affiliation. This would be truly un-democratic and against the liberal ethos that the secularists are supposedly upholding.

Do We Need a New Civil Rights Movement for Religion?

 

As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday this week, it is relevant to ask: Has religion taken the place of race in American society? What I mean by this is whether the taboos and other aspects associated with race in the 1960s and earlier have started to be associated with religion. While Dr. King and his contemporaries, most notably Malcolm X framed the civil rights discourse and used racial equality as a tool to achieve rights for the dispossessed, their discourse was infused with religious tone. While there has been a civil rights movement to include people of all races, there hasn’t been one for religious inclusion in the U.S. As several civil rights activists have pointed out, do we need a ‘new civil rights movement’ for this purpose?

Legacy of Dr. King, Malcolm X civil-rights

The simmering discontent that existed for decades before the civil rights movement burst into the scene and culminated in The Civil Rights Act of 1964, that ended the ‘Jim Crow Laws,’ and set in place new laws that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, religion or national origin. Two key figures who shaped much of the discourse around these issues in the 1960s were Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X. While Malcolm X’s legacy is seen largely as one of segregationist, this is a misinformed reading, as later on in his career, he moved strongly towards a civil rights approach and this ultimately led to his expulsion from the Nation of Islam, as I have written about this in my earlier post here.

            While both these leaders were at odds, with Malcom X calling for stronger segregation (at least in his earlier career) and painting Dr. King and others who sought integration as ‘house niggers,’ a term he used to define those who were bought over by the white man, he changed his views later on to become more inclusive. Dr. King on the other hand was an integrationist, and believed in the model following that set forth by Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (who became a nonviolent advocate only later on in his career). The goals of both these leaders were the same – equal rights for all and opportunity, irrespective of race. It is interesting to see how religion played a role in each individual’s life. Gandhi was a devout Hindu, and Dr. King was a Baptist minister while Malcolm X became a follower of Nation of Islam and later on, mainstream Sunni Islam.

 

Photo credit : NPR.org
Photo credit : NPR.org

The landscape of religion in the U.S.

Scholars of Sociology of Religion point out that the religious landscape in the U.S. is changing. And changing drastically. With the demographic shifts in the country, led lower birth rates among whites and other immigration related changes, Hispanic and Asian population is expected to rise and by 2050, the racial profile of the U.S. will look very different from what it is today. This is a fear that has been magnified by right-wing and fear-mongering groups to stoke up anti-immigration and anti-minority feelings both in Europe and the U.S. This is also leading to a change in the number of adherents of the more conservative American forms of Christianity, as this article points out how Evangelical Christianity is giving way to Catholicism.

This shift is also having a predictable reaction with the conservative camp clamping down on ‘progressive’ ideas. As this article points out about the recent changes in Arizona, : “The New Civil Rights Movement reported last year, the bill could also be considered the religious version of a “Stand Your Ground” law, allowing anyone’s practice or observance of religion to be an automatic “out.” In other words, it would give Arizona residents and businesses the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason, including because they are LGBT.” While the progressive movement is taking hold in the U.S. there has also been an equal push by the conservatives, led by the G.O.P., to oppose marriage equality, LGBT rights and other progressive agendas. malcolm-x-1

The gradual shift in the religious landscape is noticeable among the ‘new religions’ that have come into the U.S. (at least into the American public consciousness) – The Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, as analyzed by Robert Wuthnow, Princeton Sociologist of Religion. He points out that these new entrants face a new challenge – that of being unknown in the country – and calls for greater dialogue and interaction between the majority Christians and these ‘new immigrant’ religions. This narrative places the ‘emergence’ of the new religions in a post 1965 context, where looser immigration policies made it possible for greater number of people from Asia and Middle East to enter and live in the U.S.

            While there is no doubt that the number of people of these religions is rising, the amount of knowledge about them is not increasing proportionately. There is evidence to point out that ignorance, bigotry and discrimination against minorities in the U.S. is on the rise. Growing Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and fear of other minorities is a fact of life in the U.S. despite the best intentions and efforts by activists and educators. As these FBI crime rate statistics point out, the majority of the hate crimes reported have been against Jews.  As the report points out, race still is a dominant theme when it comes to hatred and attacks related to them. In summary, the report points out:

An analysis of data for victims of single-bias hate crime incidents showed that:

  • 48.5 percent of the victims were targeted because of the offender’s bias against a race.
  • 19.2 percent were targeted because of a bias against a particular sexual orientation.
  • 18.7 percent were victimized because of a bias against a religious belief.
  • 12.1 percent were victimized because of a bias against an ethnicity/national origin.
  • 1.4 percent were targeted because of a bias against a disability. (Based on Table 1

 

As Dr. Carl Ernst points out in this introduction to a book on Islamophobia in the U.S., the various trends in Islamophobia can be seen as part of the ‘othering’ of Muslims, similar to other groups such as Catholics, Jews, Mormons. As opinion polls show, over 50 percent people in the U.S. have a negative view of Islam in 2011, as compared to a lesser number in years preceding 2001. The phenomenon of Islamophobia can be understood in the context of political discourse, he seems to be pointing out, with examples of the Park 51 project and the burning of the Qur’an controversy both becoming salient in 2010, an election year. This is not a surprising fact, as this pattern seems to occur in other democracies as well- India being the most egregious example.

 

Finally, there seems to be the need for a new revolution for greater understanding of religion in the U.S. While there is a trend among certain sections of society to shun religion altogether, this is an impractical and impossible strategy, given how religiously observant Americans are. As Jonathan Benthall, the scholar of religion has pointed out “You may throw religion out the door, but it comes back flying through the window.” Religion is here to stay and we better make peace with it. And as in the case of the civil rights movement and many other movements before it; religion has made a positive contribution to make to society.

Want to fix America’s education? Focus on parents

Almost everyday, we read about a new report or another, comparing America’s poor education performance, as compared to the rest of the world. And almost always the comparisons bring up the usual suspects: poor infrastructure, lower education funding and lack of involvement from the parents in their children’s success. While all these are valid and important points, one crucial issue often gets overlooked – the stability of the family and its impact on young adults and their learning. I learnt this harsh reality, on a recent trip to a public school in Rialto, CA. While this is a ‘wicked problem’ that brings together issues of race, poverty, unemployment and housing segregation; I believe that with concerted education, greater sensitivity on part of the parents, these problems can be addressed.

Photo credit : childrenscoalition.org
Photo credit : childrenscoalition.org

As this recent Op-Ed in NY Times titled Sex is Not Our Problem points out, “about half (51 percent) of the 6.6 million pregnancies in the United States each year (3.4 million) are unintended” and “the U.S. unintended pregnancy rate is significantly higher than the rate in many other developed countries.” While the topic of this Op-Ed is about sex education and its role in forming healthier adults, the key arguments are relevant to the discussion here too that social issues need to be addressed and blaming one gender (in this case shaming of girls) won’t solve anything. With this, the writer is alluding to distracting tactics that are often deployed rather than focusing on the real issues at hand. I believe the same is occurring in the case of families and their role in educating children. Added to this, conflicts in welfare reform, education funding get in the way of actually addressing the issues at hand.

While I am not making the conservative argument that we need more families, and lesser single parents; though there is some wisdom in that argument – I am definitely calling for greater involvement on part of the parents. As someone who has had all his primary and part of his higher education in India, I can point out one insight that may be missing in all our policy debates: How to make parents more involved. For one, Indian parents, much like their Chinese and Korean counterparts are extremely engaged in their children’s education. Some going too far, I would argue. In a conversation with Mrs. Lara, an Assistant Principal, I learnt that many of the parents in this school district are either not too engaged, or just not present. This is the unfortunate consequence of some of them being deported back to Mexico, where many of them are from. “When the recession hit, you could see hundreds of abandoned homes, and when the parents left, many of the kids were left with foster parents. And one can only imagine the amount of attention these poor souls received from them.” She pointed out.

It is well known that higher educational achievement means better job prospects and greater productivity, as this Op-Ed points out: “From 1891 to 2007, real economic output per person grew at an average rate of 2 percent per year — enough to double every 35 years. The average American was twice as well off in 2007 as in 1972, four times as well off as in 1937, and eight times as well off as in 1902. It’s no coincidence that for eight decades, from 1890 to 1970, educational attainment grew swiftly. But since 1990, that improvement has slowed to a crawl.” The real economic gains and productivity have slowed down remarkably and with the recent recession, this has exacerbated the problem. As Mr.Gordon goes on to point out further that “the gains in income since the 2007-9 Great Recession have flowed overwhelmingly to those at the top, as has been widely noted. Real median family income was lower last year than in 1998.” Several factors have contributed to this including the retirement of Baby Boomers from the workforce, slowdown in innovation. The growing cost of education, reduced graduation rates from high school and those with bachelor’s degrees, all contribute to the problems that are outlined above.

Greater family involvement means lesser absenteeism, better grades and better changes of success, as this research paper points. While it may be stating commonly held beliefs that parents are crucial for the success of their children’s education – these factors are impeded in the U.S. by several factors, one of them being cultural and linguistic. Some parents may not feel comfortable or welcome in an environment where they cannot use their native language, which may not be English, in many cases. Cultural sensitivity on part of the school is key, in these cases, an insight that Mrs. Lara also shared.

While improving education standards and measurement techniques seems to be one of the ways to improve ‘quality of education’ as some organizations and policy institutes advocate; the real challenge may be more elementary and perhaps harder to fix, i.e., ensuring that the students have a stable and secure base from which to launch their careers as scholars. Families provide that in most cases and perhaps if we bring our attention back to where it matters, this insoluble problem won’t be so insoluble, after all.

 

 

A New Year Wish – Charity and Justice for all

It is that time of the year when everyone is reaching out to everyone else, to seek support for their causes. Financial support, in-kind support, volunteer time, all of it is kosher. If you work in the nonprofit sector, you’d know. There are many things that are wrong with our world and activists, religious leaders, politicians are all working, in solving these- in their own way. That is not to say thIMG_0071 IMG_0205 IMG_0206at there aren’t others who are creating or adding to these problems. Surely, there are. But there is a growing awareness among people who are aware that one must align with people or organizations to seek justice for victims of violence and oppression.

On the other hand, there is a perspective that seeks to forgive, look at the grand scheme of things and realize that (as in some world religions) that this world is ephemeral or Maya – an illusion, that will soon pass. So, one’s role is to do one’s best karma and hope for the rewards in an afterlife or next life, depending on one’s belief system. Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam advocate one of these perspectives.

While these two approaches could be seen as two opposing views, with the first one being the radical activist one, and the latter a more pacifist, non-confrontational approach; the truth is that both are very active, engaged and conscious ways of living. The other extreme is to just not bother. To switch off what is going on around oneself, insulate oneself with one’s own pursuit of happiness, comfort for one’s family and live a life pursuing pleasure. This suits some of us, and more power to them. But to live the ‘good life’ as Aristotle taught and other great teachers demonstrated through their lives requires living an ‘examined life,’ one in which one’s actions, thoughts and ambitions are put under the microscope and examined for their impact.

I have been reading a lot about charity this year, since my research concerns looking at discourses of charity and how dominant discourses in America accommodate it or not. Also, I am interested in the religious dimensions of giving and how religious traditions shape our understanding of giving and if at all, it is changing. This seems like an innocuous question, but given the current debate in the American system about welfare reform, immigration and healthcare; they have proved to be an explosive mix. And there is the risk of losing track of what is significant, amidst all the noise one hears from pundits and news anchors. One of the most striking facts I realized is that ultimately, all of us (irrespective of party ideology) are seeking solutions to human problems – and this is based on the assumption that people are not entirely self-interested, in a zero-sum game way. Libertarianism is an entirely different story. I will deal with ‘enlightened self-interest’ in another blog. The way we may seek to arrive at the solution may be different – either government intervention or market mechanisms, but the higher goal is always to solve a problem and arrive at a solution to better others’ lives. And that is an admirable thing. The only caveat is that we must be guided by facts, not ideologies. As former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said “You may be entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” We must be watchful about this, as we formulate opinions on issues that we care about.

Reading the newspaper is a depressing act these days. Civil war in Syria, economic depression in Europe, sexual violence in India, Gangs going crazy in Central and South America and political instability in Africa; not to mention the crazy antics of Republicans and Tea Partiers in the U.S. This is the staple of our diet. On a daily basis. The daily dose of images coming our way has perhaps sensitized us. The other day I just read a headline about a certain number of people dying in the Middle East and I caught myself rushing to another story, as it just did not surprise me anymore. Ghastly images, news of dozens dying is so normal that we don’t even pause to think.

As the year is winding down and I am planning for the upcoming year, I wanted to jot down some ideas and ask myself and those who read this: Can our collective resolution in the New Year be to be more sensitive, aware and more charitable? Can we aspire for a more just world, where one person’s will does not decimate thousands and thousands of lives and the forces of greed, evil and hatred don’t work their way into people’s hearts- using words, labels and ideas that sound lofty? Can we all be more alert and vigilant against the use of words and ideas such as terrorism, welfare and realize that there is always more than one side to a story and how people deploy their narratives? Can we be more charitable and yet more firm in our resolve to not let politicians, our leaders and others bully or manipulate us?

I promise to at least try, this year. The year 2013 was very good for me. I traveled a lot, met wonderful people, read great books, had great conversations, and received much kindness from people I knew and from strangers. I hope this continues in the New Year and I hope that all of you have a great year and also make the effort to be kind to strangers, nice to people you like and don’t like, dignified in your anger and sensitive when dealing with those who are weaker than you are. And learn more. Read. Travel. Converse.

Here’s my wish list for the world, in no particular order of importance:

 

  1. End to violence in Syria – Yes, this tops my list. The sheer magnitude of violence and inhumanity that we are witnessing in Syria is unbelievable. What is even more unbelievable is how indifferent all of us are to it. I hope this violence ends, irrespective of whether Mr. Assad stays in power or not.
  2. Global economy picks up – Despite not being a huge fan of GDP driven model of growth, I do feel that the slump in global economic growth doesn’t portend well for billions of poor, around the world.
  3. Republicans in America realize the value of bi-partisanship – I am told that Republicans in the past were bi-partisan and could actually reason with their fellow Democrats. Apparently, those days are long gone. This should return and I hope 2014 is the year when there are more senators like Daniel Patrick Moynihan (though he was a democrat) he was a bi-partisan and perhaps the rare intellectual-politician that all countries so desperately need.
  4. Indian politicians (and bureaucrats) stop acting like little kids – And that our media grows up. This is in context of the recent incident involving the Deputy Consul General and the alleged ‘insults’ to India, when investigations into her misconduct were brought to fore. I also hope that Indian media learns that India is not the center of the world and is NOT a “super-power” as much as they would like it to be. It actually reminded me of this talk by Ramachandra Guha, on why India should not be a super-power.

5.  And above all, I wish that all of us rise above the walls that each one of us has built around us, consciously or unconsciously – walls of gender, race, religion, class consciousness, nationality or political affiliation. And this is possible, as some wise man said: “All prejudice begins in the head and that is where it should end.”

 

New Year Reading List – Top 12 books in Charity and Philanthropy

Keeping up the tradition of recommending books to read in the upcoming New Year, here is my list of top twelve books for 2014– all focused on Charity and Philanthropy. For starters, the two words don’t mean the same. Hopefully, by the time you are done with the 12 books, you will know the difference. If you are slow reader, read a book a month; if you read fast, aim for one a week. The books are not ranked in any order, so feel free to pick up any title you choose. And yes, some of them are online (for free download) at Project Gutenberg or other sites. So, here goes:

Photo courtesy: amazon.com
Photo courtesy: amazon.com

Image 2

  1. Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America – Perhaps the most cited (and sometimes cited simply because they have to) this book is a classic. Written by a French Aristocrat, who spent a few years in the U.S. documenting the norms of civil society, Democracy in America is a must read for anyone wanting to understand how ‘civil association’ came to be so dominant in the U.S., its moral philosophy and political dimensions. Tocqueville does a great job of illustrating the development of legal systems, relationship of federal government with the states, among other things. But the genius of the book lies in finding how civil society came about in the U.S. and how it is unique in so many respects. If you don’t have this book, buy it. Today.
  2. Bishop, M., and Green, M. Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich can save the World – With the discourse of ‘business can save the world’ gaining traction by the day, it is important to be aware of this trend and analysis. While I completely do not agree with the arguments presented here, it is a book worth your time. With Bill Gates and Warren Buffet pledging almost half of their fortunes to philanthropy, will the sector be in a position to transform the lives of millions of poor? Will other HNW individuals follow suit? What are the prospects of this move for philanthropy generally? These are some of the questions Greene and Bishop have dealt with, in this book.
  3. Robert Wuthnow. Saving America?  Faith based services and the future of Civil Society – I am biased towards Wuthnow. He is my favorite Sociologist of Religion and also the most perceptive one. So, his book makes it among the most important ones to read. Infact, any book written by him is an eye opener (and there are quite a few to read). At last count, he had authored over 38 books (I counted that many, not sure if I missed a few). Nevertheless, Saving America offers an in-depth analysis of faith-based services and if they should be supported with tax dollars. Both incisive and perceptive, Wuthnow writes with compassion and a sense of duty towards those who are at the receiving end of the social services. He is a kind soul who is sympathetic with the benefits that these organizations provide to the recipients, but is also scholarly in his approach.
  4. Kass Amy, ed.,Giving Well, Doing Good: Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists. This brings together the best of essays from various cultures, thinkers and ideologies to reflect on charity and philanthropy. There is WEB Dubois, Pope Benedict, Tom Paine and Rabbi Maimonides, among others.  Here is a sample of what is in this book: Eight levels of Giving by Rabbi Maimonides :

There are eight levels of giving:

1. Helping someone find employment or forming partnerships, so they don’t need your help again

2. Giving to the poor, knowing that no one gives to them

Below this, the giver knows to whom he gives and the poor person does not know from whom he takes

4. Below this, the poor person knows from whom he takes, and the giver does not know.

5. Below this, one puts into another’s hand before the latter asks

6. Below this one gives another after the latter asks

7. Below this, one gives another less than is appropriate, in a pleasant manner

8. Below this, one gives begrudgingly

  1. Kass, Amy. ed., The Perfect Gift: The Philanthropic Imagination in Poetry and Prose – Another interesting book by Amy Kass. This brings together some interesting perspectives on philanthropy from various authors, poets and thinkers.
  2. Peter Frumkin’s Strategic Giving – While many people are trying to leave a mark with their philanthropy, they don’t have a blue print of how to do this. Frumkin, who is at Upenn provides a concise, clear roadmap for those who want to do this. A very well written book, one that is indispensable for those who want to go beyond just writing checks.
  3. William Jackson. The Wisdom of Generosity: A Reader in American Philanthropy – This is a quintessentially American philanthropy book. Using folklores, stories, parables drawn from America’s rich past, Jackson offers us an idea of what philanthropy looks and feels like in the U.S. A rich book, that will make you appreciate the richness of American traditions of giving. I realized that between me and the author, there is a small coincidence:  that the author spent his youth in Bangalore, working with NGOs’ (my hometown) and I was sitting in Indianapolis at the Philanthropy Library, IUPUI, many years later and reading his book on philanthropy. Small world, indeed.
  4. Warren Ilchman and Stanley Katz, Philanthropy in the World’s Traditions – This book looks for expressions of philanthropy across various traditions and religions around the world. This again, brings together various writers from varying backgrounds to offer us a rich compendium of ideas and perceptions.
  5. Elayne Clift. Ed. Women, Philanthropy, and Social Change: Visions for a Just Society – As the role of women is being increasingly recognized in our world, works of scholarship are also being produced. This is an interesting book that chronicles the struggles of women who are philanthropists, in everyday life.
  6. Singer, Amy. Charity in Islamic Societies – This is perhaps the ONLY book length treatment of charity in Islamic societies. And perhaps the book that spurred me to decide on my dissertation topic. And yes, she writes well. I have a deep respect for historians who do their job well and she does a remarkable job of grounding the norms, aesthetic dimensions and values of zakat, sadaqa and Waqf in Ottoman Empire and brings back the narrative to current day. A great book that should be in your possession. A review of the book is here.
  7.  David Wagner. What’s Love got to do with it? A Critical Look at American Charity. – This one is for the critical theorists out there. Wagner is not entirely convinced that charity, as we practice it, makes an enormous difference in society. He offers a well argued, indepth analysis for why things are as they are. A good read.
  8. Olivier Zunz. Philanthropy in America: A History. – This book is a historic look at the emergence of philanthropy and makes a case for its use in public good. Zunz is a historian and brings his skills to fore here. Starting with philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller and others, the book traces the history of philanthropy in the U.S., offering a great narrative of how public good has come to be associated with giving. A good read and I enjoyed this book.

Additional recommendations:

Alright, if that hasn’t satisfied your curiosity, here are a few more (keeping in tune with what one of my favorite professors does – All his syllabus has three reading lists. Required, Recommended and Supplementary).

  1. Robert Wuthnow’s  Red State Nation
  2. Barbara Ibrahim and Dina Sherif, From Charity to Social Change: Trends in Arab Philanthropy
  3. David Hammack and Steven Heydemann eds., Globalization, Philanthropy and Civil Society
  4.  Helmut Anheier and David Hammack, eds,  American Foundations; Roles and Contributions.
  5. Arnove et al. Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism

If you enjoyed this list, share it with others and if you find a book that you think I should read, please write to me! Happy holidays!

 

Do we really need nonprofits in America? : Five arguments for the sector’s existence

 

Are nonprofit organizations redundant? Can the for-profit sector solve all our problems and usher in a world where poverty, disease and deprivation are things of the past? I read an article on the Forbes website yesterday that argued for dismantling of the nonprofit sector. This piece by Mr. Freedman sought to show, using two elite universities as examples, of how the entire sector is not really contributing to our lives and at best, it is a benefit that the sector does not deserve. I believe that in the U.S. (and many parts of the world) the nonprofit sector plays a key role in society and holds together social bonds, provides opportunities to those who cannot be part of the for-profit sector and finally, offers an opportunity in democratic participation.

Photo courtesy : eder671nonprofit.pbworks.com
Photo courtesy : eder671nonprofit.pbworks.com

Let us look at some of the arguments that are made in the Forbes piece, before we move on to analyze why I think the nonprofit sector is so important to America. While pointing out that most students at Harvard and Stanford, two institutions Mr.Freedman picks for analysis – are rich, isn’t it a total waste of tax payers dollars to subsidize them? He says: “But Harvard’s philanthropy is clearly questionable. Most of Harvard’s students are rich. (For that matter,all on average four year nonprofit schools skew upward in the wealth distribution, although not as much as many of the most elite).” But it would help to remind Mr.Freedman that most students in America don’t go to Harvard and Stanford. They actually go to community colleges, for a start. As this recent U.S. News article points out, there are over eight million students enrolled in community colleges. And from a recent lecture at Virginia Tech, I learnt that as many as 40% of graduate students have spent some time at a community college, before moving onto graduate level study.

Here are a few arguments, spanning various sectors for why we need the nonprofit sector and how it enriches our lives, in concrete ways.

  1. Incentivizing community action – As Alexis De Tocqueville, the French Aristocrat keenly observed in Democracy in America, the form of association is key to progress in America. “ In democratic countries, the science of association is the mother of science. The progress of all the rest depends on the progress it has made.” Tocqueville, 1845 [1945]:1. Lester Salamon of Johns Hopkins University contextualizes this development in the ideology of voluntary action that existed since the founding of the country. Voluntary action in the 19th century was seen as a middle way between rampant individualism and monarchial tyranny. The arrival of immigrants around this time also led to the development of self-help societies and voluntary groups, that provided crucial services to the newly arrived immigrants, he points out. This continues, to this day and one sees that the nonprofit sector benefits people from across all segments of society – the very poor, the middle class to the rich ( The National Football League (NFL) is an egregious example of a nonprofit that ‘serves’ some very wealthy interests).

At the heart of this associationalism was a distrust of state authority and a belief that people are able to take care of their own needs, if left to their own devises. The legal status that nonprofits enjoy and the tax exemptions that they get is in part incentivization for this sort of associationalism.

2.Community Colleges – The surprisingly large number of students who attend community colleges is not well known. Their crucial role in preparing students for future education or work should not be discounted, nor is their funding mechanism, much of it modelled so that the fees don’t leave a big debt on those attending these institutions. As I have pointed out above, the sheer number of students who attend them is testimony to their continued relevance.

3. Employment in the nonprofit sector – As this recent article points out, millions of people are employed in the nonprofit sector and it contributes roughly five percent of the American GDP, every year. A recent report from the John Hopkins University’s Center on Nonprofits points out that about 10.1% of total America’s workforce is employed in the nonprofit sector. This is third in line, behind retail and manufacturing.

4. Democracy and philanthropy – Anyone familiar with American history will acknowledge the key role that civil society institutions have played in forming American democracy and sustaining it. Payton and Moody further argue that Philanthropy is crucial for Democracy. “The future of a free, vibrant society is linked to vitality of the philanthropic tradition,” they point out. (Payton and Moody, 2008. Pg.88). The advocacy and civic role of philanthropy are clearly essential in democracies, but other activities – helping to meet public needs and responding to human problems, shaping the moral agenda, and expressing cultural values are all part of building a stable democracy, they say. The notion that culturally, Philanthropy fosters democracy is an idea that has persisted since Alexis de Tocqueville pointed this out in his classic work Democracy in America. Payton and Moody build on Tocqueville’s argument in that Democracy needs philanthropy as it is also a cultural value, fostered by civic institutions

 

5.Cultural argument – One must also remember that individualism and freedom are at the heart of the American character, as Robert Bellah et al have argued in their book Habits of the Heart. In this book, they start off with case studies of four distinct individuals, leading very different lives. But what ties them together is how they make sense of their lives. As they say: “Brian Palmer finds meaning in marriage and family; Margaret in therapy. Thus both of them are primarily concerned with family life. Joe gives his life coherence his active concern for the life of his town; Wayne Bauer finds similar coherence in his involvement in political activism. Whether chiefly concerned with private or public life, all four are involved in caring for others. They are responsible and, in many ways, admirable adults. Yet when each of them uses the moral discourse they share, what we call the first language of individualism, they have difficulty articulating the richness of their commitments. In the language they use, their lives sound more isolated and arbitrary than as we have observed them, they actually are.”

As many keen observers of American society, from Alexis De Tocqueville to Robert Bellah and more currently Robert Wuthnow, have pointed out, civil society and its functioning is crucial for American democracy. The way in which individual agency has shaped American ethos is quite unique and offers all of us – should we choose to, to participate in making our ‘own world’ in our communities, both locally and at the national level; with limited interference from the state apparatus.

 

The libertarian argument against nonprofits in general is predicated on cutting back on any subsidies to those who ‘do not produce’. This is fallacious, as it defines productivity in a very narrow sense. Are the services of an NGO engaged in employment generation not valuable? What of the local community college or research institution? And I am not even bringing up the soup kitchens and other self-help groups that save lives, provide shelter and provide social services that many welfare states do. How does one quantify the results of some of the intangibles such as community action and mobilization, that several NGOs’ work towards?

Taking a cue from this, the discourse of ‘fixing the world’ through for-profits alone misses out on this sense of commitment, social bonding and cohesion that seems to exist in American society; and much of this exists in the nonprofit sector, where the motive to serve exists, even if in a flawed way. This social capital is the basis of how civil society has evolved in the U.S. Taking this away would mean taking away something at the heart of the American ethos. And unfortunately, much of this social capital is not “for-profit”.

Travelers’ tips from Ibn Battuta – A fourteenth century itinerant traveler

If someone has traveled over 70,000 miles in the 14th century, by land and sea; one can safely assume that this person knows a thing or two about travel and life, in general. Added to this, if one happens to be a religious scholar, who has access to Sultans and Princes around the world, then this person’s stories are definitely worth your attention, even if they are (partly) made up. Dr. Paul Cobb, Professor of Islamic History at University of Pennsylvania shared these insights in a thoughtful and humorous public talk at the Upenn Museum on Dec 4, about Ibn Battuta, the great 14th century Moroccan traveler.

Photo courtesy  : rolfgross.dreamhosters.com
Photo courtesy : rolfgross.dreamhosters.com

Ibn Battuta2    Dr. Cobb pointed out that while we take our travels with great seriousness, including making sure that we have our passports, visas and other travel documents in order, Ibn Battuta did not have to deal with these annoyances. Given that borders were porous and the Ottoman and Mughal empires, who were his hosts, ruled much of the civilized world then; he certainly didn’t need a passport. But there were far greater threats in his way – thunderstorms, pirates, disease, scorching heat of the sun and petty thieves. Dr. Cobb narrated a story that seems fascinating, intriguing and full of adventures and the “400 pages that Ibn Battuta devotes to India are just under 40% of the entire book,” he pointed out. The Travels of Ibn Battuta is a classic in travel writing and has survived centuries, partly because of the credibility of the scholar and also renewed interest in his work, after the French colonization of Algiers.

 

Beginnings of an adventure

Ibn Battuta was a 14th century scholar of Islam and originally from Tangiers in Morocco. His travels began at an early age- 22 years according to his own book and continued for 30 years. “He did not mean it to be a treacherously long journey and he admits that the motivation for his journey was the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina that every believing Muslim is supposed to fulfil.” Dr. Cobb pointed out that on route to the pilgrimage, Ibn Battuta had a dream – of flying on a bird that took him to the Holy cities and then dropped him off in the Far East. His host, a religious scholar interpreted the dream meaning that he would travel to the Far East and that many adventures ahead of him. After the pilgrimage, Ibn Battuta went to Iraq and Persia (modern day Iran) before taking the long land-route to Constantinople, with the intention of reaching India, which was ruled by Mughals.

In Egypt, he met several Sufis or mystics and one of them predicted that he would travel the world and meet other Sufis in India and other parts of the world. “I was amazed at his prediction, and the idea of going to these countries having been cast into my mind, my wanderings never ceased until I had met these three that he named and conveyed his greeting to them.” [Gibb, p. 24].

“One is not sure why he took the longer land route to India, when one considers that this was a time of bandits, pirates and no Air travel. Travel was long, hard, treacherous and life-threatening.” Dr. Cobb pointed out. He stopped by Konya in Turkey and then proceeded to Egypt and finally India, where he lived for 12 years, in Delhi, serving as a Qadi, or jurist. The fact that he was a learned man gave him access, prestige and gifts from patrons; who considered it an honor to support someone like him.

 

 

Islamic empire and networks of learning

The fact that Ottoman Empire and the Mughal Empire together owned much of the civilized world in Asia, Middle East and parts of Europe made Ibn Battuta’s travels much easier. His religious learning in Islam was a huge asset and he made a living as a judge, wherever he went. This was further augmented by the gifts he received on way from noble men and kings. Due to his stature as a scholar, people showed him respect and deferred to him, offering him gifts, hospitality and company.

As scholars have pointed out, travel and learning instilled a cosmopolitan ethic in the Islamic civilization and this was exemplified in the example of Ibn Battuta. The Sufi orders, networks of other Ulema and Mosques and Madrassas spread around the world gave him access to people, hospitality, wealth and patronage – all ingredients necessary for a successful journey. The networks of learning were strong in those days, and one’s learning guaranteed sustenance, if not great worldly success.

 

Travel Tips from Ibn Battuta’s life

On a lighter note, Dr. Cobb presented five travel tips, based on Ibn Battuta’s life and adventures. Abbreviated for greater impact, he described five habits of mind and heart that helped Ibn Battuta along the way:

  1. Keep an open mind – Though he was not very open minded in the traditional sense, having become the exemplar of what a ‘proper’ Muslim man should be, however Ibn Battura’s example should serve to remind us that one should keep an open mind, when confronted with ideas, customs and notions that we may not agree with; pointed out Dr. Cobb
  2. Go to School – The fact that Ibn Battuta was a religious scholar made his entire journey possible should not be discounted. His learning provided him with prestige, means of livelihood, and networks of other scholars and also the appreciation of what the world is about. Without this knowledge, one can safely assume that there would be no Ibn Battuta
  3. Bring snacks – Bring gifts and other articles that may be appreciated. Never a bad idea.
  4. Plan on changing your plans – Always have a plan B. Given how many times Ibn Battuta had to change his travel plans, due to bad weather, ill-health or other factors, it is advisable to be ready to change one’s plans, at short notice, if need be.
  5. Make friends – Though Ibn Battuta did not make mention of too many friends in his travelogue, he does point to a few significant ones, including scholars, fellow travelers and members of his entourage, which grew in size as his reputation grew, over a period of time. This is also a key lesson that one can glean from his life and travels.

 

For more, here is a UC Berkeley project on Ibn Battuta’s travels: http://ibnbattuta.berkeley.edu/1mahgrib.html