Since the 1980s, a number of transnational Muslim NGOs have (rightly or wrongly) been accused of financing or otherwise supporting so-called ‘terrorist’ networks (Alterman and von Hippel, Understanding Islamic Charities, 2007). Suspicions of involvement in militant activism would surge from time to time, in particular in relation to the work of transnational Muslim NGOs in Afghanistan and Bosnia. Here, several NGOs were suspected of funding militant camps, facilitating logistical support to fighters coming from Saudi Arabia and otherwise supporting the mujāhidīn. While the US and other governments would initially turned a blind eye to such relations, seeing the mujāhidīn as their ally in the fight against the Communists, this changed with the end of the Cold War. The alleged involvement of a number of Muslim NGOs in the 1993 and 1998 attacks on US territories—first the World Trade Center and then the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania—only strengthened this attention to Muslim NGOs, leading to increased control, arrests of individuals and bans of certain organizations. The view of transnational Muslim NGOs as de facto accomplices in militant Islamist activism was reinforced after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001. Within a year of the attacks, a number of these NGOs had been accused by the US government of supporting Al-Qaeda, and several other governments followed suit, banning certain transnational Muslim NGOs from working in their territory (Marie Juul Petersen, ‘Islamizing aid’, Voluntas, 2011). In the following years, governments and intergovernmental organizations introduced a range of new policies, instruments and regulations to prevent and obstruct NGO involvement in terrorist activity. This had severe consequences not only for the relatively few that were banned outright or closed down—others suffered from encumbered financial transactions and decreased popular support, leading to often drastic declines in funding from individual and institutional donors (ibid). Against this background Jonathan Benthall and Jerome Bellion-Jourdan published their book The Charitable Crescent. Politics of Aid in the Muslim World (2003). Seeking to ‘anatomize modern Islamic charity’, based on thorough historical and sociological analyses, this seminal study was refreshingly different from the bulk of writings on Muslim NGOs at that time. Spearheaded by so-called counter-terrorism experts, the field was dominated by policy-oriented research aimed at revealing and mapping the alleged links between certain Muslim NGOs and militant Islamist groups (Amy Singer, Charity in Islamic Societies, 2008, p. 2). Exploring both the strengths and weaknesses of the Muslim aid sector, Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan presented an admirably nuanced account. Jonathan Benthall has remained involved in this field in various ways, presenting succinct analysis of the nexus between Islam and aid as an academic, as an advisor to the Swiss Montreux Initiative (ch. 5 of the book under review), and as an expert witness in a number of legal cases relating to Muslim NGOs. As Benthall himself notes, the field is highly politicized, and one risks being accused of ‘either whitewashing nefarious activities or, on the contrary, unjustly tarnishing good reputations’ (p. 2). Whether as a researcher, policy advisor or expert witness, Benthall has managed to avoid both pitfalls, insisting that ‘all one can do is draw on the widest spread of evidence available and keep an open mind’ (p. 2). This approach has made Benthall a great inspiration—to many students of Muslim aid, including myself, and there is no doubt that he remains a key figure in this field. Islamic Charities and Islamic Humanism in Troubled Times, is a collection of some of Benthall’s many writings, spanning the period 2005–15. These include articles, book chapters, book reviews, reports and legal statements, and serve as a good introduction to Benthall’s work, both academic and non-academic, in this field. The book consists of 17 chapters, divided into two parts—one focusing specifically on Muslim NGOs, or ‘Islamic charities’ as Benthall prefers to call them, and the second exploring more broadly issues related to ‘Islamic humanism’. Unlike Part I, which is grounded in original research, the chapters in Part II rely on the reviews of other people’s work and should, in Benthall’s own words, be read as ‘tentative and provisional’ (p. 1). Part I: Islamic Charities sets out with a brief sketch of the modern history of Muslim charities, presenting different types of organizations, and of relevant research. A number of case studies of Muslim charities follow: Mali (ch. 2), Indonesia (chs. 3 and 8), and Palestine (ch. 4); an analysis of a legal case against an Muslim charity (ch. 6) and an evaluation of the Montreux Initiative (ch. 5). Part I ends on a more theoretical note, discussing the notion of purity and its usefulness in analyses of charity, religious as well as non-religious (ch. 9). Part II engages more broadly with themes related to what Benthall calls ‘Islamic humanism’, including Islamic conceptions of toleration (ch. 10), religious persecution (ch. 11), Islam and politics (ch. 12), and religion and violence (ch. 17). This part also discusses the works of a few key voices in contemporary Islamic humanism, including Tariq Ramadan (ch. 13), Mona Siddiqui (ch. 14), Akbar Ahmed (ch. 15), and Yusuf al-Qaradawi (ch. 16). The nature of the book—a collection of previously published essays, spanning more than a decade, and written in a variety of different formats—does not invite a chronological read from start to finish. Each essay was ‘occasional’—that is, the author’s response to, or engagement with a particular topic in a specific context. Accordingly, different essays will be of value and interest to different readers. While more could perhaps have been done in terms of making the essays speak more clearly to each other, bringing out the synergies, connections and contradictions that do obviously exist between them, the collection is nonetheless an extremely valuable resource for people interested in the field, bringing together many of Benthall’s most important writings in one compendium. Overall, the collection reflects Benthall’s unique ability to present a balanced portrait of the organizations he studies. As he notes himself, the book concentrates on some of the more ‘attractive and positive features’ of Islam, but ‘without lapsing into a roseate view’ (p. 1). Benthall often contrasts his own approach with those found in the so-called counterterrorism literature, especially the works of Matthew Levitt (Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, 2006) and J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins (Alms for Jihad, 2006), which he finds to be based on debatable methods of enquiry, lacking definitional clarity and context-knowledge, and overly reliant on webs of association to prove connections between terrorist groups and Muslim NGOs (see e.g. chs. 1 and 4 for a discussion of their work). Benthall himself engages actively with historical, anthropological, and sociological literature on Muslim NGOs, insisting on the importance of ethnographic detail and analytical rigour. The articles in the collection introduce an impressive number of scholars working with Muslim NGOs, testifying to Benthall’s unrivalled knowledge of the field—and, just as importantly—to his willingness to engage in scholarly exchange with others, building on and generously promoting the works of others (see e.g. ch. 8 for a review of Amelia Fauzia’s work). Apart from its detailed, empirical analyses of specific topics related to Muslim charities and Islamic humanism, the book opens up for broader theoretical discussions in the field. Throughout the book, Benthall discusses, in passing or more fully, a range of different theoretical and analytical approaches to studying Muslim NGOs, including e.g. Terje Tvedt’s conceptualizations of the international aid system (pp. 30–1), DiMaggio and Powell’s notion of institutional isomorphism (p. 31), Benthall’s own—intriguing—notion of ‘puripetal force’ (ch. 9), and, more broadly, literature on FBOs (faith-based organizations; passim). Rejecting the de facto politicization of Muslim NGOs of much counterterrorism literature, Benthall situates Muslim NGOs within the wider category of FBOs (p. 5), and emphasizes their role in the international aid system over their (alleged) political connections. While the FBO approach is certainly preferable to that of the counterterrorism literature, it also carries its own risks and problems, something that Benthall seems to be acutely, if not always explicitly, aware of. Much literature on FBOs, for instance, promotes an instrumentalist understanding of Muslim NGOs, focusing on their utility for the implementation of development and humanitarian activities, given their religious identity and ‘cultural proximity’ to aid recipients. While there is certainly no doubt that Muslim organizations can and do sometimes present an ‘added value’ to the provision of aid, such an approach can be criticized for not paying attention to the meaning and significance of these organizations beyond their usefulness for the implementation of (an already well-established conception of) aid provision (see Ben Jones and Marie Juul Petersen, ‘Instrumental, narrow, normative? Reviewing recent literature on religion and development’, Third World Quarterly, 2011 for further discussion of this). Another oft-mentioned criticism of the FBO concept that merits further discussion is its lack of conceptual clarity. Encompassing a wide variety of organizations—from large international NGOs and alliances to local charities, schools and hospitals—scholars have argued that the concept is of little, if any, analytical use (see e.g. Emma Tomalin, ‘Thinking about faith-based organisations in development: where have we got to and what next?’, Development in Practice, 2012). Quoting Katherine Marshall, Benthall emphasizes the importance of focusing ‘instead on specific groups of institutions, on countries, and on specific issues’ (p. 6). While he does not engage further in this discussion, Benthall’s own work is a prime example of how such a context-specific, non-instrumentalist approach may look in practice, introducing much more refined categorizations and descriptions, based on e.g. geographic origin (pp. 33–4), historical trajectories, and ideological differences (ch. 9). Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the FBO concept is its reliance on a theoretical distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’. As Benthall and others have demonstrated, this is far from always the most relevant or analytically useful way to categorize Muslim NGOs. In ch. 9—which is perhaps the most rewarding essay in the collection—Benthall instead introduces the concept of ‘puripetal force’, arguing that the different ideologies and practices of Muslim NGOs can be fruitfully understood in terms of different ways of purity-seeking. The quest for purity is, according to Benthall, central to all ideological systems or ‘ethical orders’, whether secular or religious (pp. 116–17), but it plays out in different ways, according to different logics and based on different values. Political involvement or evangelism, for instance, may pollute the purity of the humanitarian system, but not necessarily that of the Islamic ideological system. Contemporary Muslim NGOs, Benthall shows, do not necessarily rely solely on one form of purism, but navigate between different types, with some emphasizing humanitarian purity (e.g. Islamic Relief Worldwide), others Islamic purity (e.g. certain Saudi charities), yet others congruence (e.g. the Indonesian Muhammadiyah). This approach enables a much more nuanced, theoretically sophisticated analysis of Muslim aid practices than a conventional focus on FBO allows for. See e.g. Philip Fountain, ‘Proselytizing Development’ in Emma Tomalin’s Routledge Handbook on Religions and Global Development, 2015 for an application of the concept to an analysis of proselytization in the field of development. On a more general level, the book’s combination of empirical, context-specific analyses of Muslim charities with more theoretical analyses of Islamic humanism also opens the way to interesting discussions, pointing explicitly or implicitly to synergies and connections between the two fields. The essay on tolerance in Islam (ch. 10), and the presentation of Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s thoughts on ‘wasatiya’ (ch. 16), for instance, provide a useful background for a deeper understanding of Gulf-based charities such as the International Islamic Charitable Organisation, established by Qaradawi. Similarly, the analysis of the relationship between religion and violence obviously invites reflections on the role of violent jihad in certain Muslim aid ideologies and practices, as e.g. in some Muslim NGOs’ involvement in the 1980s war in Afghanistan and, more recently, in the war in Syria. The field of Muslim aid provision has undergone profound changes within the last decade, both academic and ‘real-life’. This collection of Benthall’s essays presents unique insights into these changes, with analyses of actors and events that span the whole decade. Ideally, the collection would have ended with an afterword, reflecting more explicitly on the developments that underlie these analyses. One can hope that this is the topic for Benthall’s next article. As a pioneer and a central figure in the field of research on Muslim aid, he is uniquely positioned to provide such reflections. How, for instance, are we to understand the apparent shift in authority that has happened among Muslim NGOs over the last 10–15 years, from Gulf-based NGOs such as the International Islamic Relief Organisation to Western-based NGOs such as Islamic Relief Worldwide? And how—if at all—is this shift reflected in ideological conceptions of the nexus between aid and Islam? Are we witnessing a shift from a quest for Islamic purity to one for humanitarian purity, to use Benthall’s own terminology? And if so, can this be interpreted as an example of institutional isomorphism, with Muslim NGOs increasingly copying secular, mainstream NGOs? Or do Muslim NGOs perhaps present radically new ways of aid provision, not easily categorized as either ‘Islamic’ or ‘humanitarian’? While waiting for farther analysis, I strongly recommend Islamic Charities and Islamic Humanism in Troubled Times. It is an important contribution to the field, and its balanced, detailed and empathetic account of Muslim charities will inspire anyone engaging in studies of these organizations, their ideologies and practices. Footnotes 1 I would like to thank Philip Fountain for his useful comments and suggestions to this review. © The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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