Does Islam need ‘reform’?

I am truly upset and angry that more than 12 people have died because of some vile cartoons. It should not have been, but it is so. I think the important task for people in France now, as well as around the world is to come to terms with it and deal with the aftermath. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a lot of questioning along the lines of: Why aren’t Muslims condemning the attack (the answer: Yes, most Muslims are condemning these killings) and Why aren’t Muslims ex-communicating the killers (Pierce Morgan said this, in his recent column). The answer to Mr. Mogran is that unfortunately there is no ex-communication in Islam – This is because there is no ‘Church’ in Islam, like the Catholic faith, to which he belongs. So, before we all start pontificating and becoming ‘experts’ on Islam, extremism and French culture of ‘freedom of speech’, which as we have seen has been quite shallow – given that Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist, not too long ago, for drawing ‘anti-semitic’ cartoons, here are a few points to consider:

  1. Can we please see this for what it is : An attack on a publication, by three lunatics, who were motivated by some motives – we still don’t know what they were – the only ‘facts’ we have are that they shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and that the prophet has been avenged. Beyond this, we don’t know much about their real intents, who sent them and for what purposes. So, any speculation about Islam’s role and its impact on creating a chaotic world should be tempered.
  2. Though there are violent Muslim groups and militias that claim to work for bringing about an ‘Islamic world order’, it is more a chimera than actual reality. The worst of the lot, ISIS has been an aberration of the vilest kind that came about after the collapse of Iraq and the ongoing civil war in Syria. Religion the cause for this group to emerge? No. Geo-politics: Yes.
  3. Yes, there is a problem in terms of how Muslims in Europe respond to provocation. A similar provocation in the U.S, would resulted in an articulate response – perhaps with some mockery thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the immigrants who go to Europe are often impoverished, not too educated and are at the very bottom of European societies. This does lead to resentment and (perhaps) radicalization of youth.
  4. Why is the media framing this as a problem with ‘Islam’? Though similar protests have occurred in the past, during the Salman Rushdie controversy and the Danish Cartoons one, the issue really is one of relations of power. Muslims in many part of the world are marginalized, colonized and often attacked with drones. This reality fuels anger and resentment. I think many of the violent actions that we see are a result of such perceived and real oppression. Will the ‘West’ recognize this and amend the real and (perceived) injustices in places around the world?
  5. Before we call for ‘reform’ in the Muslim world, let us in the West also realize that we need reform too. We need to reform ourselves and get rid of our addictions to war, easy credit and perhaps Coca Cola. This too, is causing many health hazards and deaths.

I am personally tired of all of that is going on. Tired of people who carry out such attacks, tired of the apologies and those who ask for it and tired of those who publish these cartoons, to lampoon, attack and insult. Freedom of speech has to be placed in context. As much as I defend freedom of speech – remember I am in the Academic world, which wouldn’t be as it is, here, if not for freedom of speech – I do think there is such a thing as irresponsibility. And with power to shape opinion, create dialogue or mock, comes responsibility. Those in positions to write, think and create ideas should be sensitive to this.

Is there a ‘rational’ way to Discuss Immigration Reform?

America is a country that equally loves and hates immigration. With public opinion on this issue being divided, it does not look Americans will reach a consensus on what is good for the country, anytime soon. If history is any indicator, then this question has not been settled in the last three hundred years. So, as urgent as this matter is – and I do believe that immigration reform should take place – I think we need to step back and look at this issue for what it is – a deeply rooted one, that is intertwined with the very identity of America. Is America really a ‘melting pot’ of cultures and people? Or is it not? There is no right answer to this question, as it is a normative one, whose meaning will be defined and re-defined by every generation. I would argue that it is impossible to determine this purely on the basis of polls, public opinions or even voting, because this question is about values and normative assumptions about what constitutes America.

Liberty

By this, I mean that there is no ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ way to go about immigration reform in the U.S. I believe the best way to think about this issue is to think of it as an ethical value, rather than as a ‘rational’ one, that would either benefit or harm America’s economy. President Obama’s recent moves to allow millions of undocumented workers is not a new story, in the sense of being totally novel, but one that is part of a struggle between nativists who did not want to dilute the character of America versus liberals, who believed that the melting pot of America should be kept open to all, who wanted to be a part of it. As this article in the New York Times points, one key piece of the Executive Order may allow up to five million undocumented workers to work in the U.S. with work permits and not fear being deported. The benefits of this measure could be potentially limited to those who have lived in the country for more than ten years, the report added. This brings us to the question of why immigration continues to be such a big issue? Why is it so divisive and what is the history of this discourse?

Since the early 19th century, this has been the pattern of existence for most Americans. While the immigrants have changed – from Irish in the early nineteenth century to Asians, Arabs and now Latinos. The anti-immigration sentiment has been based on fear. This is a dominant theme that emerges time and again. This could be a fear of several things: Fear of lack of resources, vanishing jobs, ‘dangerous criminals’ and fear of ‘diluting the true identity’ of what it means to be an American have all been invoked, from the early 19th century onwards. While we are witnessing anti-immigrant sentiment against Latinos and Muslims now; the Irish, Eastern Europeans, Arabs to South Asians have faced this in the past.

Latino immigration and fear of the ‘foreigner’

While President Obama has been slow to push for comprehensive immigration reform, given the nature of divisive politics in Washington D.C., there is indication that he will issue an Executive Order, soon. This is meant to allow for greater access and mobility for undocumented workers, who are predominantly from Mexico, but also come from Latin American countries.

Nativists argued for banning the Irish from entering the U.S. in the 19th century and then later in the 20th century, the same arguments were propounded against Arabs and those from Asia. As Wuthnow suggests, we must critically examine the mythos that make up America – that is a land of opportunities, or that it is really a religious place. These myths are not helpful, and can do more harm, he suggests and goes on to say “For example, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we are. They result in ideas on how to escape materialism and consumerism and are more wishful than what we imagine.” Any such examination should take into account that we are becoming more individualistic, as a society and this needs to give way to a more collective way of thinking, he suggests. So, is the anti-immigration sentiment a purely rational decision of individuals deciding to keep those not ‘fit’ to be part of the U.S. out, while allowing others to come in? Or is there something more to it? Can we explain this through purely rational choice paradigm or do we need more than that?

So, while it is important to examine the narratives on which America is built, it is also crucial for us to look at the narratives and myths about the immigrants themselves. I would argue that this is equally important, if one were to arrive at some approximation of ‘truth’. While several studies have shown that immigration is good for America, there are an equal number of them that would point to the opposite – that immigrants are harmful to our economy, they take away jobs from deserving Americans etc. This sort of ‘instrumental rationality’ of measuring everything from a purely ‘scientific’ perspective is not helpful. In social sciences, we need more ‘value rationality’, as suggested by Flyvberg (2001) and others. This means that we actually go beyond purely epistemic or quantitative analysis and make normative, ethical judgments about issues – whether an issue is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for our society.

As Wuthnow argues, renewal of America – as an idea – is not purely about material conditions, though economy is always part of the political discourse, but rather about where people feel the country is headed. This is evident in the mid-term elections that concluded, where a majority of voters did not recognize Obama’s achievements in reducing unemployment, budget deficit etc. and instead voted for the Republicans. How does this fit into the arguments that I have made thus far? It confirms in some ways what Flyvbjerg says that people do not make ‘rational’ choices but rather those that are based on normative choices. So, in our analysis of issues like immigration, climate change etc. perhaps we must be open to including judgment and decisions made in the manner of a ‘virtuoso social and political actor’, as Flyvbjerg suggests, rather than just focusing on the rules of the game. Rules are often now followed and are often broken, when it comes to practical, everyday life – a fact that ‘rational’ social science does not take into account.

 

How to write about Islam?

Amidst all the noise about the end of the world scenarios being portrayed as a result of ISIS conquest of parts of Iraq and Syria and equally banal assertions that Islam is somehow inherently violent, and needs ‘reformation’, the common man out there is left confused. As someone studying Islam in America, I am at a loss for words, at times, and have to remind myself that unfortunately much of what we read and hear is from people who have no clue what they are talking about. Propaganda, vested interests, media hype make a clear political or sociological analysis of what is going on in the MiddleEast and the U.S. very hard, if not impossible.Blue mosque

What is the best way to write about Islam, then? Is it to be an ‘apologist’, and ‘defend’ Islam against all the attacks and criticisms? Though this approach is needed sometimes, it doesn’t sound very helpful, because there are genuine criticisms of Islam and Muslim societies that should be considered and weighted in, if one is writing in an honest manner. The alternative is to take a critical stance and call for a radical reform of Islam, as several atheists and former Muslims have done. The most egregious and distasteful manifestation are people like Irshad Manji and others like her, who are often seen coddling with the pro-Israeli or extreme Right-wingers in the U.S. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how these two groups get along. The criticisms that they level are often steeped in broad stereotypes and an almost anti-intellectual approach to Islam and its rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The third way to write about Islam is to write it from a perspective of how Muslims themselves understand Islam and I will delve into this approach, in a bit of detail here.

For starters, what is Islam? Is it a ‘religion’, as we understand it? There is serious debate among scholars of religion about what constitutes religion. Is Islam a religion by the classical definition, or is it an ‘exceptional’ religion, in that many definitions of religion do not apply to it- by virtue of its origins, growth and universal appeal? A few scholars that have written extensively on Islam. Dr.Talal Asad is one such scholar, who I will quote extensively in this article. Asad reminds us that Islam has been studied by Anthropologists – he names Ernest Gellner in particular – as someone who has tried to present Islam as a totality. This Islamic totality, according to Gellner, is formed as a result of social forces, political ideas as well as historical facts. This view that is often informed by Orientalism, and is premised on an opposition between Islam and Christianity – with Christianity located in Europe, while Islam is situated in the Middle East, Asad contends. Even current media representations of Islam use these binaries to define a ‘modern’ West and a ‘backward’ ‘Muslim world’. There are several problems with this binary approach, not least of which is how does one speak of Muslims in the West? Are they ‘negotiating’ with modernity in the West, or are they excluded from modern notions by virtue of their religious beliefs? No easy answers to these questions. With this in mind, Asad reminds us that writing about just social interactions or social constructs such as ‘tribes’ is not very helpful, as this approach, adopted by scholars such as Gellner reifies the Islamic norms, social relations and other aspects.

Another problem with this approach that Gellner and others take is that religion, power and political authority are often represented as having fused in Islam, while this has not occurred in Christianity. This view is not wholly accurate since there is a vast diversity in how power and religion interacted, historically, argues Asad. The perspective that Gellner and Clifford Geertz take is not helpful in understanding the perspective of Islam as an analytical concept that is as much part of the present as it is a construction of the ‘past’. Further, this perspective grounded in history misses out on the diversity of Islamic practices in contemporary societies.

Asad’s key argument about Islam is that it should be treated as a ‘discursive tradition’. He says “No coherent anthropology of Islam can be founded on the notion of a determinate social blueprint, or on the idea of an integrated social totality in which social structure and religious ideology interact.” This means that all that Muslims do is not ‘Islam’. What Muslims around the world do is not necessarily a reflection of their religious traditions, just as much as all Christians’ actions are not a reflection of Christianity. He suggests that the only way for studying Islam and its Anthropology is how Muslims would do, i.e., examine how their actions relate or should relate to the founding texts – the Qur’an and Hadith. He further argues: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” By tradition, he means: “A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history.”

Finally, it is helpful to remember that the ‘Muslim world’ is just a conceptual ideal, not a ‘social reality’. Asad reminds us that “It is too often forgotten that “the world of Islam” is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. This is not to say that historical narratives have no social effect—on the contrary. But the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation.” This should be kept in mind, when we speak of a group of people that are over 1.6 billion in number and are present around the world – in every conceivable corner of every country.

One might also be tempted to ask: Why isn’t India a part of the ‘Muslim world’, since there are over 150 million Muslims there, despite being a minority? This is something every person who writes about Islam should consider. Broad generalizations, stereotyping and inaccurate analysis won’t help. On the contrary, such analysis will only confuse us, rather than clarify what we are seeking to study and understand. To quote Asad again, he says that the fatality of character among Muslims in Islamic society that Geertz and other invoke is the object of ‘of a professional writing, not the unconscious of a subject that writes itself as Islam for the Western scholar to read.’ As with Orientalist representations, what others write about Islam says as much about the author, as it does about the Islam or the actors they describe. A profound insight that should help us think critically before writing about a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith.

How Not to Think of Lobbies in America

How does one think about a special interest group? Are they the ‘tail wagging the dog’? Or more realistically, just power-brokers who are go-in-betweens, managing perceptions, raising money and buying out influence, for those who they work? The answer is something in between. While I don’t agree that lobbies are all powerful, they do wield significant influence that cannot be denied. But they also operate within certain constraints, as Stephen Walt warns us in his article How not to think about the Israeli lobby. Recent failures of the Israeli lobby – including not being able to get the US into war in Syria – (until now) is an indication of its limited influence. It took nearly three years before the U.S. decided to intervene in Syria, and that too, only when ISIL is involved.

AIPACI spoke with a group of American students, quite recently, about ‘Israel Lobby and US Foreign policy’ a topic I am somewhat familiar with. Having researched this topic for over two years while at Syracuse University, I gave up and changed tracks. After a while, I was exhausted – both intellectually and emotionally at the developments (or lack thereof) in Palestine. It is a hard topic to research, especially if one is invested in some way – either intellectually or emotionally. As a bystander, I was not as invested in the topic, but morally; I felt (and still do) that all fair-minded people should intervene to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, though the two state solution may not exactly be the way to go. “Israel is like a piece of cheese, with the holes for settlements. How will you ever divide that into two countries”, said one of my favorite professors on campus. I believed him and still do. Though I harbored faith in the two state solution at one point, I don’t think it is practically feasible, given current realities on ground.

The American students I spoke to were critical, skeptical but at the same time optimistic that there is a solution to the crisis. With the Israel lobby question in mind, I did not have to struggle too hard to convince them that those in ‘real’ power had to make hard choices, some wise decisions and come to some consensus on what the way forward is. And to put things in context, I was speaking with students in the ‘Bible Belt,’ and that fundamentalist Christians are more pro-Israel than many American Jews, as this poll by Pew Research shows. The status quo won’t work is something these students realize. Even the most ardent pro-Israeli student in the room realized that the obstacles to ‘peace’ are internal to the Israeli establishment and this discourse is aided by American support. Peter Beinart’s question of whether the ‘liberal Zionists’ ideals’ of a free and democratic Israel that uphold human rights, justice are dead, is worth asking.

In a recent Op-Ed in New York Times, Mairav Zonszein argues that there is a vilification campaign going on in Israel against those who dare speak out against the state.Zonszein says “The vilification of the few Israelis who don’t subscribe to right-wing doctrine is not new. Similar acts of incitement occurred before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. But now they have multiplied, escalated and spread.” The discourse of ‘Us vs. them’ seems to have been incorporated by the Israeli establishment, very effectively and any dissent is labeled as anti-Semitism. The most recent ‘war in Gaza’ demonstrated this fact. Social media was abuzz with discussions, fights and arguments about whether Israel had the right to ‘defend’ itself against the rockets that Hamas fired.

The ‘winds of change’ are blowing, if recent developments are any indication. Peter Beinart, in his book The Crisis of Zionism argues that there the continued building of settlements in the West Bank imperil the very existence of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. Beinart says that the tradition of debate, open-dialogue that is inherent in Judaism is being hijacked by fundamentalist groups in Israel. While groups such as Americans for Peace Now, J-Street and dozens of others work to build up the ‘moderate’ voice that is liberal, accommodating of the Palestinian demands for recognition, the hawks seem to dominate the debate. These liberal groups are also growing in power and influence, if my discussion with the youngsters is any indication- and so is the public sentiment among American Jews- who are overwhelmingly liberal. On another note, Hamas just gave up control of Gaza to the Unity government a few days ago, according to news reports. As Rami Khouri reminds us, the challenge before us is whether the rival factions will unite. Further to this, I believe something more important than this is whether this unity will hold, and if Israel will recognize this unity. He calls this negligence to establish order within the ranks of PA and Hamas ‘ a criminal negligence’.

Finally, as Walt reminds us, it would help to remember that lobbies are special interests, that operate to achieve their ends. They may at times be the tail that wags the dog, but generally, as a rule; the dog is in control of the tail. Knowing this reality will help clarify any exaggerated claims – whether it is in the case of Israel or the NRA.

 

 

Is there a ‘God Problem’ in the West?

Is there a ‘God Problem’ in Western societies? Given the rise of the atheist movement, best exemplified by people such as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins and other famous celebrities who make a living dissing religion; the question is: Do they have a point when they say that religion makes no sense and people are fools to believe in it? While this is a reasonable claim, it is not true. People are indeed rational when they speak of religion and they do this by speaking to others (and themselves) in ways that conforms to norms of reasonableness. This is the key argument that Robert Wuthnow, Princeton Sociology professor makes in his book The God Problem, which carries out a discourse analysis of how people talk about religion. He argues that given a chance to speak, and with enough attention and patience, we will discover that most people will speak about religion in very reasonable terms. The crazy right-wing talk is just that – crazy- and is carried out by a tiny fraction of the minority, for political and other reasons, while the vast majority of believers are normal, reasonable people.

Photo credit: UC Press
Photo credit: UC Press

The ‘God problem’ is not only about belief, but about its manifestation in the real world. When radical extremists demand death for homosexuals or seek to legislate in favor of believers and discriminate against others, who don’t look or believe as they do; this problem becomes real. Also, the reaction of atheists to this is often very strong, leading to a war of words, and other times a literal war. This is the gist of what Wuthnow calls the God problem and one can appreciate how this is indeed a complex topic, not just in the U.S. but anywhere in the world, where people take their religion seriously. I have written about this in my earlier post about Religion in the Public Sphere here. Another problem that he has highlighted is the notion of religion and democracy and freedom of speech. Since much of dogmatic religion suppresses dialogue, critical thinking, this is seen as harmful to democracy.

Wuthnow argues that a highly educated society like the U.S. is a paradox of sorts, given that rationality is not supposed to go hand in hand with religion. He says: “The best educated tend to tilt away from the pattern of devout religious conviction, apparently experiencing some of the tensions between faith and intellect that the critics argue is there. But this is only a slight tilt. For the most part, well-educated Americans seen to have found a way to continue to believe in God and praying regularly to this deity.” This, he says is not because of bad education, wishful thinking or other factors; but rather the need for these believers to have their cake and eat it too. In this way, he argues that language mediates between belief in god and rationality.

Wuthnow suggests that people of faith adopt strategies (six of them) to help balance this tension between faith and reality. They are:

  1. Schema alignment – Schema alignment frequently takes the form of anthropomorphizing god- imagining God behaves like a human person. Studies by Barrett and Frank C. Keil asked students to complete stories about God and then compare these with students’ answers to abstract theological questions. Their answers frequently suggested that God acted like a person even though these were inconsistent with the students’ formal theological views.
  2. Ontological assertion – Affirming the existence of God without necessarily attributing specific actions to God. It is possible to make statements that emphasize being without explicitly suggesting action. Prayers are often of this kind. They assert the existence of God without associating any other action with God. God is more of a reality, presence, or being and less of an agent who engages in action.
  3. Contingency referents – These are devices that makes divine action contingent on human action or circumstances, and thus provides an explanation for apparent failures of the divine. They are a kind of warrant or explanation for why something happens or does not happen. Warrants for trust are a good example. They stop short of asserting that they can influence God’s actions and hence Pat Robertson’s assertion that he could change the direction of Hurricane Gloria came across as a cultural Faux pas. As Wuthnow adds, “A Muslim doctor says she believes firmly in the Prophet’s teaching that you should ask God for what you need, even if it is a shoelace or some salt. “God is going to provide it,” she says. She adds “ It’s not that he is going to give it to me in my hand. I have to struggle to get it. “ Other people explain that God will help them realize their dreams in life, but only if they work hard, or that God will help them avoid serious illness, but only if they eat right and have regular medical check-ups.
  4. Domain juxtaposition – Is another device that emphasizes transgressions of basic cultural categories, or at least strong contrasts between them, and is thus expressed by this rubric. Prayer implies that the human realm can somehow communicate with a divine realm. The two realms are necessarily juxtaposed. However, a juxtaposition of this kind must be defined, and doing so involves the construction of a symbolic boundary that both distinguishes the two and brings them together.
  5. Code switching – This involves using words that in context would imply supernatural action, but then changing the terminology to make the meaning of those words metaphorical or ambiguous. He quotes a Muslim woman, with a bachelors in Economics as saying “ As a scientific, educated mind, I don’t think it is true that I relate to God, on a very personal basis. But I believe it is the spirituality inside you that says, ‘This is the God that has created me. He’s going to take care of me. “ What is she saying? “ Wuthnow asks, before answering that there are two parts to her – two aspects to her persona that reflect different speech communities. Speaking as an educated mind, she cannot say that she personally relates to God But switching into her inner spiritual self, she can say that there is indeed a connection.
  6. Performative Competence – Is slightly different from the other devices in that it suggests that the appropriate way to assess a prayer is by talking about how it was performed. An example would be saying that a heartfelt prayer is good or especially meaningful because the speaker was sincere. Another example would be saying that a liturgical recitation of the Lord’s prayer is good because the exact words of Jesus are being spoken. A competent prayer is one that conforms to these expectations.

The only weakness that I found in this book is that he did not give a background about discourse analysis to those who do not know what it is. DA is a highly technical and rich field, which takes some background in sociological theory, linguistics, political science to grasp fully and perhaps a short chapter or even an appendix with some references would have helped. This is a thoroughly researched book, with over 200 in-depth qualitative interviews, with people of all faiths in the U.S. To this extent, it is empirically grounded and rich in data.

As Wuthnow points out in the conclusion, American religion has included parts of ‘spooky and weird’ behavior. From Evagelicals like Ted Haggard to other born-again Christians, there have been leaders who have preached things that would fall into that category. This ‘World rejection’ as Max Weber termed – has been a key feature of dominant religious philosophies in the U.S. He further points out that all these have been studied, but what has not been studied is the way reason manifests in this mix. That seems like a fair thing to say. We tend to hear only the crazy stories of healing or their ‘rational’ denouncements by atheists who can be equally extreme in their reactions. In between these two, we don’t hear the actual experiences of the people who believe, act out and affirm their faith, on a daily basis. This book does a good job of articulating and making sense of this belief. One of the ways that an act comes to be regarded as rational is through what Jurgen Habermas has called ‘Communicative Rationality,’ i.e., when something is deliberated in public, among all parties involved and a decision is reached.

This is a fascinating read, and if you have interests in religion, linguistics, and sociology or discourse analysis – The God Problem should definitely be on your reading list.

What is the role of religion in philanthropic giving?

Source: churchandstate.org.uk
Source: churchandstate.org.uk

A report I read recently claimed that British Muslims are more generous than all other faith communities in the U.K. The report said: “Followers of Islam gave an average of $567 compared to Jewish givers who donated around $412, according to the survey of just over 4,000 people in the U.K. Christians gave considerably less. Protestants donated an average of $308, while Roman Catholics gave around $272, the poll found. Atheists averaged just $177.” It is available here and makes some interesting observations and points to data that is compelling. While the findings are interesting and definitely worth debating, I think the question is somewhat misplaced, and a better framework to use to analyze this is through looking at the role of religious discernment in giving and what motivations people have, to give. It may be worthwhile to focus on whether there is a greater religious consciousness among Muslims about giving and whether they are they better informed, or is this because Zakat is mandated in the religion and people are “Returning to religion,” as Jonathan Benthall famously argued.

Paul Schervish, in his essay Religious Discernment of Philanthropic Decisions[i] has pointed out, the following two questions have become important for our generation, to consider:

  1. How can wealth become  a tool to achieve the deeper purposes of life, including charitable giving, when acquiring more wealth or augmenting one’s standard of living have ceased to be of high importance?
  2. How can religious discernment help individuals choose and carry out those deeper purposes for the use of their resources?

While I am not contesting the results of this finding, and actually feel good about these results, my thesis is that the questions being asked and those being investigated do not capture the complexity of the phenomenon of giving and while useful as a Public Relations exercise, do not illuminate the complexity of giving within the Muslim community, nor the religious motivations that go into making those charitable donations.

The bigger question for me, as a researcher is also methodological, to the extent that whether this captures the trends in society, overall and to what extent is this representative of the population, as a whole. As any statistician will tell you, statistics hide more than what they reveal. Here are some problems that I have with purely data-driven, survey based studies.

  1. While the report points out that: “ In total 4,036 people answered the question: “How much, if at all, would you say you generally donated to charities last year?” it does not point to more nuanced ways of looking at what they donated to, why and with what intention in mind? These are all very important questions, as they are at the core of trying to understanding philanthropic motivations and the intended results that philanthropy is expected to have. The “moral biography,” of giving, as Schervish points out is as critical to understanding giving behavior as is the dollar amount. I would argue that this is more significant, in terms of understanding how the wealthy conceptualize their role in their societies.

As he further points out: “Thus far I have used the term moral biography to refer to how individuals implement their unique combination of capacities and purposes. My use follows that of Emilie Durkheim, for whom it means a normative orientation or direction by a full range of formal and informal mores – the horizon of laws, customs and conscience that direct daily practice. What Durkheim does not recognize is the reality of genuine spiritual or religious life in the way today’s believers would understand that reality.” (pp.129)

  1. Who is a Muslim? – This seems like a simple question, but is not. While in many Arab and Asian societies, the question of who is a Muslim is determined by the state or the community, in the West, anyone who is self-declared to be a Muslim is one. This includes even those sects such as Nation of Islam or others, who are not considered ‘mainstream’ by other Muslims, and do not generally have many associations or interactions with the greater Muslim population.
  1. What about anonymous giving? – This is the third problem with data driven giving, and one that does not look at the motivations or other aspects of giving. Looking at the largest data of Million dollar gifts given, on the Million Dollar List, you can see several ‘anonymous donors.’ This, in my opinion is a common occurrence, not only in high networth giving but also giving among common people.
  2. How do we capture Muslims giving to secular causes? – This is an aspect of the issue that is not discussed often. One can argue that Muslims give a good amount of money to secular causes and there are many non-Muslims who give to Muslim causes. Surveys such as these do not do a very thorough job of capturing this data, which is key to telling the story of Muslim Philanthropy.

Paul Schervish, points out that religious discernment and the positive cultural context are important, as people may become more charitable, in the future. In the case of Muslims, around the world, one can argue that perhaps they are becoming more charitable, given that there are more avenues to give – with online platforms, newer NGOs’ starting operations, greater awareness of both national and international crises and situations where humanitarian relief is required. Schervish argues that this discernment is occurring among the newly wealthy, either through conversations with their pastors, spouses or financial consultants. He further pushes the boundaries of what is “religious,” by including any activity that is well thought out and conducted with reflection. This, he occurs when people are attuned to a philosophy of giving and care.

In conclusion, while I do not disagree that Muslims are the among the most generous faith based group in the U.K. and also, arguably in other western societies; the data that is gathered needs to be examined in context of the discussion above.


[i] Schervish Paul. Religious Discernment of Philanthropic Decisions. Indiana Uni Press. 2010

Innovations in Philanthropy: Community Foundations and Faith-based organizations undergoing a radical shift

“There hasn’t been any ‘innovation’ in Islamic philanthropy in the last 1400 years,” said Reza Aslan, a scholar of religion and founder of ‘Zakatability,’ a startup that is aiming at efficient zakat distribution through online technologies. His organization is all set to change this, using a combination of traditional norms and modern technologies. While one can argue that there hasn’t been the kind of innovation within the Islamic, Arab American philanthropic space, in comparison with the ‘mainstream’ philanthropy, there is a lot of activity in the humanitarian aid, education and other spheres where arguably, innovation and change is taking place, albeit slowly. Practice is informing theory, in this case. While the rate of adoption of these innovations is different across the country and varies between various ethnic groups, there is little doubt that the traditional ‘one on one’ giving is being replaced by a more anonymous ‘institutional’ giving in some cases, while the ‘one on one’ giving is being reintroduced in radically new ways, as in the case of organizations such as Zakatability.

Pic courtesy: BU.edu
Pic courtesy: BU.edu

American society has been projected as a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, traditions and norms of living. But a closer look shows that this is not entirely true. While in some ways this is occurring, in others, many groups are keeping to their traditions, religious and cultural values and norms that are markedly different from the ‘mainstream’ norms. Before we delve into the different innovations, it is important to define what I mean by ‘innovation.’ Merriam dictionary defines it as:

1: the introduction of something new

2: a new idea, method, or device

I will use this definition all along, in my brief survey. I use three examples of organizations, that are using communications, strategic networking and youth engagement in novel ways, going beyond the ‘traditional,’ i.e, family or mosque/church level giving, to encompass a broader ‘community.’

Here are a few examples of organizations that are keeping the traditions of giving in the parent/original culture intact, while imparting some of the methods of ‘scientific philanthropy,’ to the younger generation, and also to some of the older generation Americans.

  1. Teen Grant-Making Initiative: An initiative of the Center for Arab American Philanthropy, that is part of ACCESS, based in Dearborn, MI, this initiative trains young Arab American high schoolers in aspects of philanthropy and grant-making. The initiative started in 2011 and is doing well, points out their office bearer, whom I interviewed a few weeks ago. Philanthropy and grant-making is conceptualized as a way to break stereotypes of the Arab American community and this measure may well serve that purpose. More details on this project can be found here. The mission of the organization is : “To make a difference in our community through grantmaking and community service.”

2.      Zakatability – A start-up founded by Reza Aslan, author and entrepreneur, most well-known for his book No God but God and recently, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, this organization seeks to reach out to poor Muslims around the world, using a model similar to Kiva, i.e, one on one giving using online technologies. This is yet to pilot in its full form, but given the expertise and experience of the team behind it, the project is sure to make some waves in the field of Islamic philanthropy.

3.Young donors programIslamic Relief USA – Though not institutionalized like the TGI, Islamic Relief encourages young children and youth groups to participate in small fund-raisers at schools and parties at home, to raise money. This, one can argue is keeping in line with the ‘traditional’ norms of sadaqa or voluntary alms by Muslims, but at the same time is an ‘innovation’ as much of the money goes towards humanitarian relief and other modern means of philanthropy, something that the older generation of Americans, don’t relate to, too well. Here is an example of this program.

It is good to recall that the only real innovation in philanthropy in the Muslim world was the Waqf, or the private endowment, which was a borrowed concept from pre-Islamic Sassanian Empire. And this was institutionalized as public policy under the Abbassid Empire in 13th century onwards. The fruits of that effort are everywhere to be seen – from the oldest university in the world i.e, Al-Azhar to modern day western foundations that have borrowed many of the same principles as the earlier Waqfs. For more on this, please see my earlier post on this here.

What the literature on Diffusion of Innovation tells us

Diffusion of Innovation theory is one of the most well-researched and solid Sociological theories that looks at the rate of innovation adoption, the factors that go into it and how it varies, across various parameters. I believe that this theory is useful for us to understand to what extent some of the innovations will or will not be accepted in the field of community based philanthropy/ faith-based giving.

In a fascinating book on diffusion of innovation in Rural Sociology, Frederick C. Fiegel and Peter Korsching William F. Ogburn is best known for his “cultural lag hypothesis,” (1922) that stipulates that two correlated elements of a culture might change at different rates, thereby setting up a situation in which a lesser degree of adjustment between the two elements might be perceived. (Pp. 3) An example of this the authors point out is the development of automobiles and roads did not correspond together. Achieving a reasonable accommodation between the two remains a problem, even today. The tension in the Arab American/American Muslim paradigm of giving are in the norms of giving, eligibility of recipients (Islamic norms stipulate who can receive zakat etc.) and also the notion of not ‘wasting money’ in administrative costs etc. that needs to be addressed.

The further argue that It is precisely the technology-as-lead variant of the cultural lag hypothesis that became important for diffusion research. The bulk of the early diffusion research took it for granted that tech innovations in agriculture were leading elements in cultural change. An array of non-tech elements of culture (attitudes, values, social relationships and so on – then represented the lagging elements). The primary objective of much of the early diffusion research was to determine which of the lagging elements were critical in delaying full acceptance of the leading (tech) elements.” (Fleigel, Korshing. Pp. 4)

One of the insights from this literature based on Ryan and Gross’s study (1943) is that the source of knowledge for adoption of technology by farmers is crucial. Salespersons were the source of knowledge in majority of cases followed by neighbours. They also suggested that there are possible trait typologies in farmers that can be analyzed to see how they adopt a new innovation. In the case of Islamic and Arab American case, the source of knowledge are either the religious leaders or local community leaders, who set the agenda for formal giving. While there is not much empirical evidence on how giving occurs, anecdotally, this seems to be the case.

While organized giving among American Muslims, Arab Americans is arguably new, this field is definitely witnessing a lot of activity. While much of philanthropy still exists in informal networks, and beneficiaries are usually relatives, friends or someone known to the donor, this seems to be shifting if the success of organizations such as Islamic Relief, Muslims Without Borders, Muslim Aid is any indication.

 

References:

  1. Frederick C. Fliegel and Peter F. Korsching. Diffusion Research in Rural Sociology.Sociology Ecology Press. Middleton. Wisconsin. 2001