Is God a White Racist?

Since Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, there has been a renewed national conversation about race in America. While most thoughtful analysts agree that there is a wide racial divide in the country, no one has come up with a definitive answer as to how to solve it. Despite decades of government, non-government and civil society efforts, the issues of racial discrimination, racial tension persist. While different racial groups have responded differently to this situation, the response by American Muslims is of particular interest to me, given that Islam is supposed to be ‘race-blind,’ according to popular understanding. A related question that is important is: How do Muslims make sense of black suffering, fully believing that God is beneficent and merciful?Michelangelo-Creation_of_Ev

‘Does Islam ‘do’ race?’ asks the scholar Sherman Jackson, one of the most well-known scholars of Islam in America. Even if at face-value, Islam does not address race as a question, since most Muslims argue that race is a ‘social construct’ that the white man came up with. Even if Islam does not do race, ‘Islam does reality,’ Jackson reminds us, urging us to be aware of the vast differences between the race-neutral languages that most Muslims use versus the presence of racially discriminatory practices and ideas around us. Jackson argues in his book Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering that universalizing tendencies of many immigrant and overseas Muslims about ahistorical truths and ‘race-free’ discourses won’t help and that we must engage with the discourse of race, instead of ignoring it.

Jackson points to the work of William R.Jones, whose book Is God a White Racist? has brought to fore the question of how to make sense of black suffering in the world. This question becomes relevant to those religions that insist that god is benevolent and merciful – a fact that Islam endorses, time and again. If God is all powerful and benevolent, then the protests of Blacks against their condition could be considered a revolt against the will of God and the only appropriate answer to this situation would be ‘quietism,’ argues Jones. Jones’s critiqued all existing Black theologies in favor of secular humanism or humanocentric theism, which he believed offered a solution to Black suffering. The biggest critique of Jones has been his complete negation of Jesus, the central figure in Christianity, who is supposed to embody suffering of all mankind. But Islam does not suffer from this problem. While considering Jesus as a prophet, Islam rejects the notion that he died for the sins of all humans.

Consider the following: Every Surah of the Qur’an begins with the phrase ‘In the name of Allah, the beneficent and Merciful.’ The question that Jackson is bringing up is how can Sunni tradition, or rather Blackamerican Sunni tradition make sense of this dichotomy between reality of Black suffering and the claim that God is all loving and merciful? A powerful and important question indeed. The challenge before Blackamerican Muslims has been how to overturn these structures of oppression, rather than just accept them passively, within the theological framework that Islam offers, says Jackson. This is similar to the struggles that Malcom X went through after his break with the Nation of Islam, says Edward Curtis in his book Islam in Black America. Curtis argues, against conventional understandings of Malcom’s life that he sought to separate out religion from his politics – post his break from the Nation of Islam (NOI). One may recall that the NOI was a racist, black supremacist organization that believed that Allah did not have a place in heaven for the ‘blue eyed devil’, i.e., the White man. This followed his realization that while Islam sought a race-blind adherence to the religion and universal brotherhood, the problems of Blacks in America were real. So, Malcom sought to align with Pan-Africanism to address this specific issue, before he was assassinated, argues Curtis.

So, how does mainstream Sunni theology reconcile Black Suffering with the belief a merciful god? Before we authoritatively answer that question, Jackson suggests that we look at the way Muslim theology developed. He offers a rather insightful look into the evolution of various schools of thought – Muta’zilite, Ash’arites, and the Mutaridities. While the first group of scholars are the ‘rationalists’ the latter two are ‘traditionalists’ operating in the rational tradition. Questions of anthropomorphism, the createdness of the Qur’an and related areas are where they differ and this has important implications on how they view reality. For instance, whether the Qur’an is a created word of uncreated can have implications on the extent to one which can have flexibility in interpreting the text- versus using it literally.             Of course, there are verses in the Qur’an such as “O mankind, we have created you from a male and a female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another.” (Qur’an. 49: 13). Tariq Ramadhan, another well-known scholar tells us that such reminders are handy, when one has to reconcile between the daily realities and the larger principles on which one has to base one’s life. Muslim jurists have worked hard to explicate the challenges of dealing with vast diversity that we find amidst ourselves, while staying true to our religious ideals, Ramadhan suggests. But Jackson seems to be taking this argument one step further by arguing that a Blackamerican Muslim theology must be developed to address these challenges, while remaining conscious of the universal arguments made by mainstream Sunni Muslims, around the world. A uniquely Black response is needed, as it addresses specific issues of Blackamerican Muslims, he contends.

In discussing the evolution of the four traditions of Islamic theology, Jackson says that the key principle that is important to understand Theodicy is one of divine omnibenevolence – meaning that God could ‘neither sponsor human evil nor reward people or punish them for actions over which they had no effective control’. (p.51). In other words, this means that humans have free will to decide what they want to do. To quote Jackson “This demanded in turn, that humans be endowed not simply with freedom of choice but also with the actual ability to translate their choices into actual physical reality. In this way, no evil committed by humans could be attributed to God, and God could not be deemed unjust for holding humans accountable for their evil actions.” (p.52). This strategy of positioning man in a position that is ‘rational’ and one with agency to decide his/her fate, Mu’tazalites paved a way for a certain interpretation of suffering in this world. This notion of free will or ikhtiyar has come under considerable attack, as Jackson reminds us.

Finally, Jackson reminds us that despite differing in the amount of agency that each school of theology gives to humans, they all agree that there is an element of power in the human hand. “For if humans petition God to instantiate their will to do good, God will inevitably respond,” he says. From this, it seems that be clear that God is not seen as a white racist by any of the schools of Islamic theology and there is also no need for quietism – since racism and any violent oppression is against God’s will – and must be resisted by all people of conscience.

To William R. Jones’s question on whether ‘God is a white racist’, the simple answer, is that he is not a racist. The problem is of course, human will – which in Islamic theology accounts for much corruption that we see amidst us.

Why you should be Skeptical of Media Pundits’ Commentary

Are the pundits (or experts) on TV actually making us more ignorant? I am starting to wonder if all this explosion of ‘experts’ around us is really helping us understand the complex issues in front of us, or are they ‘dumbing down’ things, in order to reach us, and in essence not really helping us ‘know’ and ‘learn’? With the proliferation of social media, TV and 24 hour news channels, it is easier for everyone to have an opinion about everything. Even if we don’t know anything about a topic, it is quite possible to have an idea about that topic – I would even say that this current flood of ‘knowledge’ around us forces us to have an opinion, however ill informed. I am guilty of this, myself and catch myself having an ‘opinion’ on a random topic that I don’t know much about.

source:brietbart.com
source:brietbart.com

Are we are living in an age of illusions – where the ‘illusion of knowledge’ is very real, while the actual knowledge of the topic or subject may be minimal. The most egregious form of ‘knowledge sharing’ is the 2 minute interviews on TV. In fact, there has been much criticism about this form of discussion. How much can you realistically aim to teach or inform someone about complex topics such as the unemployment in America, War in Iraq or Global Warming? While TV anchors force their interviewees to churn out wisdom in sound bites, are they not really asking these ‘experts’ to dumb down, so that the lay person can really ‘get it’ in two minutes? Whose responsibility is it, then, to inform and educate the public – that of the public scholar or the media houses?

This brings us to the question of ‘what is knowledge’? Knowledge can simply be defined as what is agreed upon by people in a society. While observation and logical deductions form the tools of creating knowledge, they must also be validated by the ‘experts’ in the particular field, before it becomes ‘knowledge’, as Earl Babbie(2011) reminds us. “In general a scientific assertion must have both logical and empirical support: it must make sense and it must not contradict actual observation.” (p.4). This means that what our society determines is actually very critical, if not the only relevant criterion, to what we consider authentic ‘knowledge’.

Let us use one example to illustrate a point I am trying to make. Recent debates about Islam in the US media are also an example of what is going wrong, when it comes to ‘knowledge’ about Islam. A recent Pew Survey shows that 42% of Americans believe that Islam, more than other religion promotes violence. While the findings of the survey may be true – that is a whole different argument – what I am concerned is how terms are defined and how this comes to constitute what we ‘learn’, in other words, the epistemology behind it.

What the surveys do not tell us is how they define violence. This should be balanced with ‘facts’ such as structural violence, which are defined as ‘hunger and poverty’ are growing enormously in the US alone. Is poverty ‘structural violence’ as I have argued above, in which case the US society would be very high in this form of violence? And in comparison, many of the answers that we see in this survey may not hold true, even if we were to compare societies by religious belief.

While surveys are surely useful in aggregating opinions and ideas of large numbers of people, these very surveys can be quite problematic too. False respondents, social desirability and interviewer distortion are some of the methodological difficulties in survey research and in using the data that is collected. Also, surveys do not tell the ‘full story’ from the perspective of the group that is researched. Data and numbers can only inform us partially and only in a very dry, scientific manner, that may be misleading at times. So, while data alone cannot help us understand religion, we realize that tradition and metaphysics are crucial tools too. So, the real question is – what do we really ‘learn’ from such efforts? Not the entire story, I would argue.

Another problem with study of religion is that of tradition. While scientific research and methods often disregard values and tradition, as being anachronistic to research methods, one cannot ignore the force of traditions in studying religion. This does not mean we need to disregard tradition completely. While a purely positivistic paradigm of research may reject tradition and values outright, a constructivist may regard them as valid and often required. But for one who is practicing religion, tradition is part and parcel of the practice. I speak here of most Abrahamic religions, and perhaps some Eastern faiths too – Hinduism and Buddhism included. So, how do we incorporate tradition with the modern notions of how contemporary religious people see themselves? Speaking of Islam as an example, Talal Asad (1986) has argued that there is a need for studying Islam as a discursive tradition, i.e., a tradition that is evolving and adapting to the circumstances around it. Additionally, the work of Anthropologists who have studied Islam- scholars like Ernest Gellner and Clifford Geertz place representation of Islam in the social structure that is ‘entirely in terms of dramatic roles and this tends to exclude other conceptions”. By this, he means that Islam can be reduced to a battle of ‘big traditions’ of the city with the ‘small traditions’ of the villages. Asad says that Gellner’s Muslim protagonists do not speak, they only behave. Asad’s biggest critique of both these scholars, and by extension of a way of writing about Islam is that it ignores indigenous discourses i.e., how Muslims themselves talk about Islam and how they understand it. Their own notions of ‘knowledge’ about Islam are ignored. Pundits usually rattle off numbers, statistics and latest ‘reports’ by think tanks to prove their point, without telling us the weakness of this data and the many fault lines that exist there. Traditions, values and understandings of norms – that are crucial to behavior are often ignored or ‘essentialized’, making simple the complex and ever changing dynamic of how groups behave and negotiate with their circumstances.

Another recent example of the fuzzy logic that media pundits use to convince people is on Politico. Here, the authors points to data shared by Fareed Zakaria, who has argued that ISIS holds about one third of Syrian territory. This is blatantly untrue, argue Weiss and Itani. They further say “Most troubling is Zakaria’s fuzzy math about the opposition, its ideology and the terrain it is said to control. He writes: “The Islamic State controls about one-third of the country, and the other militias control a little less than 20 percent. But the largest and most effective of these non-Islamic State groups are al-Qaeda-affiliated and also deadly enemies of the United States. The non-jihadi groups collectively control less than 5 percent of Syria. These data points are dubious and misleading. A look at reliable maps of ISIL-dominant zones in Syria indicates that the terrorist army holds much of the Euphrates River Valley and Raqqa province, as well as parts of Aleppo province.” This seems – at face value – to be a more sound argument, based in facts rather than the one that Zakaria has made. Which facts do we choose and why? Not easy answers, unless we know a whole lot about the issue and the sources of research that are being presented before us, as ‘valid proof’.

While all that I have said should not mean we should totally disregard ‘experts’ on TV, who can be thoughtful and knowledgeable people – their comments should be treated for what they are – appetizers for us to start our meal of knowledge – rather than treat their summary remarks as the entrée. Doing so will only ensure we remain hungry for more knowledge! And at worst, our limited knowledge will blind us to the realities of the world that we do not see, in our own ignorance, and the illusion of knowledge.

The illusion of knowledge is tempting. Indifference and ignorance aren’t sexy, anymore.

What can Islam offer to the World? Part 1

Most often, when journalists write about Islam, it is in connection with something negative. As Edward Said argued, many years ago in Orientalism, there is a tendency in the Western academia and media to focus on the stereotypes of Islam and the Muslim world, at the expense of the ‘reality’ that exists in the Muslim majority countries. At the same time, when groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda go about doing the most inhumane and barbaric acts in the name of Islam, it doesn’t help either. The ones bearing the brunt of these negative stereotypes are over a billion people – who for the most part – I would argue are not as blood thirsty, violent and bigoted as the media portrays them to be. In this vitiated and negative environment, where it is easy to blame everything on Islam and Muslims’ negative attitude towards progress, modernity; is it not necessary to step back and ask the question: What can Islam offer to the world? Not what it has offered, already, but what it can offer– in the here and now – and in the future. In this brief piece, I will focus on economic justice as one of the areas where Islam can offer some solutions.

social justice

Is a dispassionate debate possible and is it worth-while talking about the ‘benefits’ that the Islamic moral and economic system can bring about? While the debates about Islamic economics and its comparisons with the conventional economic system that is dominated by Neoliberal understandings is not possible in this short piece, I will focus specifically on the notion of economic resilience and community solidarity to bring home the thesis that I am proposing. In the context of the debates about inequality, poverty and violence, I am interested in finding out if Islamic systems of economics or social justice can offer some guidance to the world, at large?

            The question that I am interested in raising, and one that I heard in April, at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting is this : Can Islam offer anything to our world in the 21st century? And specifically, our economic world? This may offend some believers that is understandable. But for those who are not Muslim, the question of Islam’s relevance in today’s world is a very valid question. Especially, when there is an environment of extreme negative stereotyping of the faith – even those who are peaceful believers are forced to ask: What is going wrong? Are the political dynamics within Muslim majority countries so skewed that they cannot manage to live peacefully, or is something wrong with the cultural dynamics of these societies – following Samuel Huntington’s infamous ‘Clash of Civilizations’ hypothesis, that there is a perpetual tension between the ‘Muslim world’ and the rest of the world.

For those who are familiar with Islam’s glorious past, this question is not relevant; since Islam has already contributed much to current Science, Mathematics, Culture, Art, Music, Sports and every conceivable human enterprise. That is not the point. The point I am trying to raise is one of how Islam can continue to be a positive force in the world of 21st century. Given the popular and at times academic critiques of Islam as a ‘civilization’ that needs reform and one that needs to ‘catch up’ with the Western civilization, this question gains importance. I will borrow the concept that Dr. Jane Pollard, of the New Castle University used at the AAG presentation that she made: that of ‘Resilience’. She asked, and quite rightly, if the London’s financial district could learn something from the poor Somali refugees who inhabit the East side of London. These poor, displaced immigrants are hardly the paragons for financial literacy, but, she argued, their habits of philanthropy, supporting one another during times of distress, can teach us lessons in resilience. She shared results from her research that many of the 60 odd individuals that she interviewed give away about one third of their meagre salaries/earnings in tithing or charitable activities, often to help their relatives/friends who are in distress. This concept of resilience of poor individuals and communities can be applied to conceptualizing and building on how communities can survive and perhaps even thrive through trying times, harsh legal and other conditions, she argued.

            My question also gains salience in the context of growing globalization, growing heterogeneity as well as pluralism, around the world. What can Islam teach us about living amidst and with differences? For those who are not aware, Muslims are spread throughout the planet and in fact American Muslims are the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the U.S., according to research by the Pew Research group. Can Islam’s heterodoxy and pluralism be reinvigorated? Also, while pluralism within Islam is a fact in America, it may not be so evident in other countries, where there is more homogeneity and lack of diversity of opinion and tolerance.

 

Solidarity, community and faith

Using the notion of cosmopolitanism and cross-border territoriality, Pollard and her colleagues argue that “An alternative form of economic rationality is being constructed and practiced across diverse sociospatial contexts to produce what we term cosmopolitan financial geographies. Building from recent debates about territoriality, embeddedness, and relationality in economic geography, we respond to calls for a more complex treatment of agency, developing the concept of cosmopolitan legalities to capture the dynamic multiterritorial, relational governance of Islamic banking and finance (IBF) that melds Western and Islamic financial rules and practices through the embodied religious authority of Shari’a scholars.” This economic rationality is based on a global ethic of recognizing the Ummah or community of believers as one – irrespective of geographic boundaries. Taking a cue from her work, one can argue that globalization and flow of ideas, concepts and knowledge existed centuries before the term globalization emerged on the scene, with Western powers promoting it. Networks of knowledge and learning were already well established in the Muslim world, as I have written about, in my earlier post on Ibn Battuta, the peripatetic traveler. These networks were also, interestingly, networks of patronage, learning as well as charity. They formed an organic whole and the various parts of the Islamic system learnt, shared and benefited from the nodes of interaction that existed.

 

How can this exchange happen?

In our globally integrated and ‘embedded’ world, there are mechanisms for sharing of knowledge, insights and a genuine dialogue to occur, if parties are interested. This sort of exchange has been going on, at the level of nation-states, individuals, businesses and scholars. There are many scholars, who are working on comparative religion, sociology of knowledge, development studies and related disciplines that draw upon and build theories of knowledge, societal development and economic development that benefit all of mankind. As Abdullahi An’naim has argued in this short paper, Islamic concepts of zakat can be reimagined for addressing concerns of social justice. Issues of homelessness, poverty, extreme hunger and the like can be addressed through zakat and sadaqa, the religious norms of giving for Muslims throughout the world. In fact, Charity is the third ‘pillar’ of Islam and is fundamental to the practice of religion. With such a strong orientation towards social justice embedded in the faith and its practice, it may seem logical to see how Islamic economic and moral systems can be engaged in addressing some of the key problems before us. And this is precisely what thousands of NGOs, intellectuals and organizations are attempting, around the world.

As Lena Rethel has argued, if one were to look at purely the legitimacy aspects of Islamic finance, then there is no real difference between how Islamic finance tools are being built. They are just replacing the conventional tools, replicating one form of legitimacy with another, she says. This epistemological hegemony of legitimacy is counterproductive to producing a real alternative to the existing Neoliberal framework.

The key insight that Pollard’s research points to, is that we may perhaps have to focus more on microeconomics, looking at how small communities, individuals make decisions, rather than focusing solely on macroeconomic policies and programs. While there are lessons that macroeconomic planners may derive from these small scale projects, the key may be to look at the imbalances at the individual level and aim to build self-sustaining communities that are not as embedded in the current financial system.

Lessons in Foreign Policy from Food Cart Vendors

“Cairo, very good city. You go there?” queried the young Egyptian juice vendor, as I was attempting to buy a mixed berry juice, while waiting for my turn to enter the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Another food cart vendor, who was a Syrian pointed out the similarities in spices in India and the Arab world. “We got lots of spices from India. Spices tie us together. We are brothers in spice,” he joked when I asked him to pour more hot sauce on the Shawarma that he was preparing for me. He even did the Indian head nod, in an effort to make me feel ‘at home’, I must confess that it irritated me a bit – it doesn’t feel great to be at the receiving end of a stereotype.falafel3

Later, it was a Bangladeshi worker at a pizza joint who remarked “Indira Gandhi very good. Sheikh Hasina not good,” summing up his understanding of Indian politics. Given that his Hindi was extremely limited and my Bengali is virtually nonexistent, we still managed to talk about various things, as I gorged on the mushroom Pizza on the streets of Manhattan. Despite my new Bangladeshi friend’s understanding of Indian politics being over three decades old, he seemed to have gleamed the broader trends in Indian politics – that there is some level of democracy, no matter how imperfect and (lesser) outright corruption than Bangladesh. I had to remind him that India is no paradise, he was insistent that “India very good. Indian people good people.”

            This was the United Nations of people – an Egyptian, Bangladeshi, Syrian all feeding a hungry Indian on the streets of New York city. While I have always loved the Big Apple for its diversity, openness and positive energy, it can be, at times quite exhausting; I have never lived there long enough to understand how people bring their own understandings of the world and create a city that is a microcosm of the world. But through these exchanges, people were revealing themselves and their modus operandi – of shared cultures, foods, political observations, habits of heart and idiosyncrasies. And through this, they were finding a common ground to communicate – despite the barriers of language.

                        While Americans are famous for not traveling outside of the country, they are often exposed to people from different cultures and lands. This may, in some cases lead to jingoism and a false sense of entitlement. As I read somewhere a few weeks ago, “Americans like Mexican food, Mexican Music and Mexican culture – just not Mexican people.” There is a great effort to remove those who are living as undocumented workers in the U.S. and the sense that immigrants are taking over ‘our jobs’ seems to have become all pervasive. This sense of entitlement and fear of the ‘other’ is unfortunately prevalent and seems to be gaining ground among certain political actors in the U.S.

            The final visit of the day was to the National September 11 memorial, just a few blocks from where I had had the fresh fruit juice. I enjoyed the exhibits, though it was a bit overwhelming, both visually and in terms of the displays themselves. I noticed half way through the visit that the brochure did not have any Arabic language. There were instructions in about eight or so international languages, but to leave out one of the most widely read and spoken languages in the world seemed a rather odd omission. I walked out of the museum wondering if those who made that decision to consciously leave out the language knew as much about the world as these food cart vendors, and if they appreciated others humanity as much as these strangers from strange lands.

 

 

Can democracy take root in the Arab world?

As Syria burns, Iraq implodes and Tunisia and Libya struggle to democratize, one question remains central to framing discussions of participatory governance – Is democracy possible in the ‘Muslim world’? Is democracy an ‘internal wound,’ that has been left to fester for too long, within the Arab/Muslim world, as Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi argues? She says, pointing to Islamic history that, since the advent of Islam, there have been two traditions within Islam – the intellectual and philosophical tradition of the falasifa, of the Hellenized philosophers and the Sufis of Persian and Indian traditions and on the other hand, the Kharijite tradition of political subversion – which has been violent and bloody. This tradition continues, as we look around the Arab world and the struggles for power that are ongoing.

 As Mernissi says “The two traditions raised the same issues that are today told are imports from the West, issues that Islam has never resolved: that of ta’a (obedience to the Imam or leader of the community) and that of individual freedom. Political Islam resolved these issues neither in theory nor in practice, for the idea of representation was never effected, although the idea that the Imam is chosen by the community is deeply rooted in the Sunni Islam.” (1992, p.21). This choosing of the Imam by the majority is a democratic element that has been part of Islamic history, no matter how one reads it. The first caliph and those onwards, till Ali were chosen by consensus of the community, though it was not an ideal participatory voting mechanism, as we know it today. Some of these age-old tensions are still playing out, in many ways. This could be considered a part of the power-struggle within the house of Islam, at the risk of sounding orientalist. But there is a grain of truth to this.

I explored some of these questions a few years ago, when I took part in a two semester course called Democracy in the Middle East at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, as part of my MA in International Relations. This was in 2009, when life was stable in the Middle East and it would be a while till the word ‘Arab Spring’ would become part of everyday lexicon. Some of the bigger questions that we grappled with, as part of the seminar, taught by Dr. Miriam Elman were: Is Islam compatible with democracy, Are the countries of Middle East and North Africa inherently not able to adapt democratic means of governance and to what extent has history played a role in the way things are.

            Vicky Langhour (2002) points to the arguments made by some scholars that substantive democracy may need to be stalled in the authoritarian countries of the Middle class till there is a solid middle class that can demand legitimate democracy. This is operating on the assumption that the only alternative to the existing autocratic regimes is that of Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood, Al’nahda etc…) who are as bad, if not worse than the current authoritarian rulers for democracy – so goes the argument. She says: “The suggestion that substantive democratization be put off until middle classes develop is of limited usefulness. On the one hand, its assumption that middle classes do not support Islamists is belied by Islamist successes in the elections within middle-class professional syndicates; on the other, the growth of strong middle classes in several Arab countries has not made regimes any more willing to devolve power democratically. Western pressure is needed to push Arab autocracies toward a phased-in democratic opening designed to strengthen opposition parties.” The wide spectrum of Islamists from MB to Hamas to Hezbollah all demonstrate the various stripes in which these parties come. The question really is : Is the West willing to acknowledge Hamas as a legitimate party, once it is elected democratically. Now that Hamas does rule the Gaza strip, it is still not treated as an equal partner in dialogue by Israel. So, how does one deal with such hypocrisy from those who purport to promote ‘democracy’? This is a legitimate question and one that is being asked in the Muslim majority countries. Langhour suggests using economic incentives such as trade agreements and other incentives to push Arab governments to move in a certain direction – in terms of allowing greater participation among the political parties etc. But the West certainly cannot pull strings now, as it has in the past, given the recent wave of anti-Western sentiment and ongoing civil war in Syria and Iraq.

 

Is the Middle East exceptional, in some way?

Eva Bellin (2004) asks the question if the countries of the Middle East are in some way exceptional, in being resistant to democracy – by virtue of culture or economic development? No, she says and adds “The Middle East and North Africa are in no way unique in their poor endowment with the prerequisites of democracy. Other regions similarly deprived have nonetheless managed to make the transition. Civil society is notoriously weak in sub-Saharan Africa, yet twenty-three out of forty-two countries carried out some measure of democratic transition between 1988 and 1994. The commanding heights of the economy were entirely under state control in eastern Europe prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, yet the vast majority of countries in this region successfully carried through a transition during the 1990s.” She says that there isn’t one or even many preconditions for democracy, as it is a complex process. The question she asks is why there has not been even an attempt towards democratization. Given that she wrote this piece in 2004, that question has been answered now, with the Arab Spring and democratization of Tunisia and Libya, though the latter is struggling to keep it up. Drawing an insight from successful revolutions, she argues (based on Theda Skocpol’s thesis) that “Democratic transition can be carried out successfully only when the state’s coercive apparatus lacks the will or capacity to crush it. Where that coercive apparatus remains intact and opposed to political reform, democratic transition will not occur.”One can apply this reasoning to Egypt and Tunisia and see why the former failed as a successful revolution and the latter succeeded.

            In conclusion, it could be said that democracy needs not only an ecosystem in the form of civil society, an educated class of people who want change but also some preconditions – which are by themselves not necessary to guarantee it, but may facilitate its arrival. Finally, there is something to be said about the role of super-powers and the neighbors in a country. To what extent are their influences playing into the formation of alliances and networks of people is crucial to understand, as well. Also, it may be wise to remember Mernissi’s reminder that “the Gharib (West) is still Ajib (strange). The strange is always fascinating and as in the tales of the Arabian nights, one never knows that foot to stand on when faced with the unusual. Something that fascinates you, but you don’t understand, can eventually destroy you. Western democracy, although it seems to carry within it the seeds of life, is too linked in our history with the seeds of death. But the death of whom? Of the authoritarian technocrats or the powerless intellectuals? Of the officials who are the watchdogs or the people who raise the challenge?” (p.21).

Mernissi’s is a positive and hopeful vision of the future of democracy in the Arab world. She ends her book using an allegory of the Simorgh from Farid Attar’s classic Poem The Conference of the Birds, a classic written in the 12th century, an equivalent of the modern day classic Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. “The Simorgh is us” she says, arguing that the realization of all the best ideals of a Western liberal democracy and Islamic state are better individuals and a better community. Once we realize this, then the end result would be perfect, she seems to be saying. This is a vision that cannot be wrong or faulted. And in the years and decades to come, one can hope that it is realized by all those who are concerned about the future of the Middle East and its people.

 

References

Mernissi, F.(1992). Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Peresus Books. Cambridge, MA

Langhour, V (2002). An Exit from Arab Autocracy. Journal of Democracy. Vol 13, No.2

Bellin, E (2004). The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective. Comparative Politics. Vol. 34. No.4

Can the ‘Golden Age of Philanthropy’ Transform America?

As I visited Indianapolis last week to attend the ARNOVA Young Leaders Forum, I met some of the people from Lilly School of Philanthropy, the world’s first school of philanthropy. While the two day meeting was meant as a professional development opportunity, it also served as a way for the young leaders – most of who are PhD students – to network and also listen to some of the leading researchers in the field of philanthropy about the ‘state of philanthropy’ in the U.S.

 

index

Incidentally, one of my colleagues also forwarded me a newly released report titled A Golden Age of Philanthropy Still Beckons: National Wealth Transfer and Potential for Philanthropy Technical Report released on May 28th by the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College points to a new ‘ golden age’ of philanthropy, that could be ushered in, considering the inter-generational wealth transfer of about $59 trillion that is likely to occur in the duration between 2007-2061. I will discuss this briefly, in this blog post. This is the first of a series of blog posts and I will come back to discuss the issues in this post, in subsequent posts.

For the uninitiated, it may help to start off by pointing out that philanthropy is the most American value. As one speaker argued, it is more American than Apple pie – given that more Americans give to organizations than the number who vote or take part in any other social activity. Here are some key highlights about American philanthropy:

–          The average giving by Americans has hovered around 2 % of GDP for the last four decades

–          The total giving (estimated) in the U.S. was about $ 300 billion in 2013, according to Giving USA report

–          Giving to religious institutions has declined over the decades from about half of all giving to only about one-third of all giving in 2013.

Consider a recent story about Detroit in the New York Times that showed that about $ 850 million are needed to rid the city of blight and deprecated buildings. Problems of urban poverty, homelessness are far too big and widespread to be addressed by philanthropy alone. While the figure of $ 300 billion may seem big, when one considers the scale of social problems facing the U.S., this figure is miniscule, compared to the total amount of money needed to ‘fix’ all the problems, provide the poor and vulnerable with services they need and also to invest in the future of the next generation. Philanthropy by itself cannot solve these problems.

 

How is this relevant ?

While the figure of $59 trillion may seem an impressive one and perhaps transformative, several questions remain unanswered too. Would those who get the bequests actually use this money towards philanthropy or would they hoard wealth? What about the newly wealthy, who may not be inclined to support causes that address social issues, but may in fact veer towards political advocacy or other parochial means of spending their wealth. As the press release for the ‘A Golden Age’ report says: “The study reveals a 12 % increase in this “give while you live” trend since the authors 199 study. Over 55 years, nearly $ 27 trillion are estimated to be given through lifetime giving and a further $ 6.3 trillion through estates and various estate planning approaches.” What is of interest to non-profit professionals in this is that the portfolio of transfers is shifting, according to the authors of the report. One of their conclusions is that the transfer portfolio will include nonprofit organizations, donor advised funds, family foundations as well. This diversification of portfolio is what the authors claim makes this trend in giving transformative.

This report and other similar ones point to one important sociological shift in America: Giving patterns are slowly shifting, though giving has somewhat remained at 2 % of GDP over the last forty years or so. This shift towards ‘giving while living,’ may potentially be a game changer, as the report indicates. And there is good reason to believe this claim. But the hype of philanthropy solving all major societal problems is a very big claim that is not substantiated by facts, as the example of Detroit above shows. While I believe in the power of philanthropy to have a transformative effect in certain niche areas, the claims being made in many cases are outright exaggerations.

 

How can Zakat help Syrian Refugees?

The ongoing Syrian Civil War is pegged to be the largest humanitarian disaster since the Cold War. A recent New York Times article quoted United Nations Organizations officials making an appeal for an unprecedented $5bn towards relief and rehabilitation, even as the fighting goes on. Given that most of the victims of the crisis are Muslim (ironically, so are the perpetrators), the question that one can logically ask is: can the neighboring Muslim countries as well as those with a large Muslim population help fix the humanitarian crisis? What role can religious mobilization play in humanitarian rehabilitation? At first glance, there seems to be tremendous potential for this sort of mobilization. Geopolitics aside, I argue that humanitarian responses coming from individual and civil society, faith-based groups are perhaps the most effective way to deal with long-term aid for Syria and particularly helpful, when the government aid dries up.

Photo credit : irusa.org
Photo credit : irusa.org

Consider this: Annually around US$200 billion and $1 trillion are spent in “mandatory” alms and voluntary charity across the Muslim world, according to a report from the IRIN, the United Nations News wire . This is more than 15 times the combined annual global humanitarian aid from all countries. This staggering amount of money is spent largely during the month of Ramadhan, but some of it during the whole year. While giving patterns vary across countries, racial and ethnic divisions among Muslims, who are ethnically and racially as diverse as the entire humanity; certain patterns are clearly visible: there is a clear preference to give to ‘near and dear ‘ones, i.e., poor relatives or neighbors. In fact Muslim scholars recommend that this be the case. While zakat and sadaqa (voluntary arms) are not strictly conceptualized as tools of social justice, they can be interpreted as such. The Qur’an calls charity a process of ‘cleansing one’s wealth’. And this motif is visible among most donors, around the world. There is a growing mobilization globally, to give to causes and humanitarian initiatives such as Syria, Palestine, Sudan etc. The success of Islamic Relief, Hizmet Movement and other civil society groups is testament to this growth in the Muslim FBO sector. While this sector offers a lot of potential, there are obvious challenges too.
The challenge of utilizing zakat for humanitarian development in Syria are many. While several organizations such as Islamic Relief, Helping Hands, Hizmet, Red Cross, UNHCR, Save the Children and several others are working in Syria to ameliorate the suffering of vulnerable populations, the demand is far too great; for these organizations to fulfill the needs on their own. This calamity needs concerted and coordinated actions on all fronts – government, nongovernment, faith-based and individual. The big challenge in a coordinated global humanitarian action involving zakat is obvious: the logistics of it is simply too complicated. While there are no centralized ways to donate zakat money and each individual or family usually decides on how this money should be disbursed, there is a growing awareness among groups and national leaders on the need to streamline it. One way to do this is to coordinate donations through civil society organizations, as it happens in the Western world and emerging economies, where there is a growing culture of nonprofits. Among those countries where this is not possible, some states do collect zakat money. In fact the Gulf countries even have zakat ministries that care of zakat collection.
Jonathan Benthall, one of the pioneers of study of global Islamic humanitarian movement has written in his book The Charitable Crescent that the global movement to utilize zakat and help fellow Muslims started after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Bosnian War consolidated it. Given the fears of this money flowing into militant hands, several governments have clamped down and made it hard for the flow of zakat money, he says.

Other researchers such as John Alterman have called this an ‘exaggerated fear’, arguing that despite the doomsday predictions, only a very small number of these nonprofits indulge in illegal activities and that we ignore or sideline their potential for doing good at our own peril. Several organizations have spoken about the difficulties, both real and perceived, of channeling their zakat money towards the Middle East. The hurdles that have been put in place, both as a result of monitoring systems set up by the U.S. and E.U. for monitoring ‘terrorist funding’ often conflate funding for civil society organizations. This is a real danger that is facing this sector. The dominant narrative of ‘terror funding’ may perhaps be an inflated fear of a phenomenon that has genesis more from geopolitical developments and actors rather than through civil society organizations. Both Alterman and Benthall point out that this is a fact we must consider, before we conflate the two. A report from ISPU in 2009 titled Charitable Giving Among Muslims: Ten Years after 9/11 argued that the actions of the U.S. government to shut down and investigate several Muslim charities had had a detrimental effect on charitable giving.

The report goes on to suggest several policy recommendations, that would remove the current hurdles in place. The situation today is not looking good. As of today, the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) has received just 10 percent of its needed amount . As donor fatigue sets in and there is greater despondency among aid workers and donors, the critical question that all those involved in this must ask is: Are we utilizing the solution, right in our backyard? Are we being too cautious, in the face of a great need and not letting home-grown solutions cater to home-grown problems?
Going forward, the challenges in a post-conflict situation would be many. Education, housing, healthcare would only be the starting points for the millions of those displaced, both internally and out of Syria. While the U.N., army of civil society organizations and faith-based organizations gather resources and work through this difficult crisis, one thing is clear: all segments of society must come together, irrespective of faith- affiliation, geographic and national boundaries, to help the victims of Syrian War.

Notes

1. For more, see http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/08/world/middleeast/syria.html?action=click&module=Search&region=searchResults%230&version=&url=http%3A%2F%2Fquery.nytimes.com%2Fsearch%2Fsitesearch%2F%3Faction%3Dclick%26region%3DMasthead%26pgtype%3DHomepage%26module%3DSearchSubmit%26contentCollection%3DHomepage%26t%3Dqry749%23%2FSyria%2Bfundraising%2F&_r=0

2.For more, see For more, see http://www.irinnews.org/report/95564/analysis-a-faith-based-aid-revolution-in-the-muslim-world

3. See http://www.ispu.org/Getpolicy/34/2259/Publications.aspx
4. For more, see http://fts.unocha.org/pageloader.aspx?page=special-syriancrisis