Civil society and Islamic aid in Iraq: unseen developments and threats
by Theo Murphy July 2004

This article explores two related, but neglected, aspects of the aid environment in Iraq: the politicisation of aid by local religious/political parties; and the role and position of international Islamic aid. Clearly, in the politically charged climate of present-day Iraq, the activities, funding and political affiliation of international aid is a key question. Yet while there has been extensive debate about US NGOs and their affiliations with the belligerents, Islamic aid organisations are afforded de facto membership of the humanitarian community in Iraq without any enquiry into their funding, affiliation and agenda. This presents a potential – but unforeseen – threat to the principles of humanitarian action.

Manipulation by political/religious parties

History in the region suggests that the emerging political/religious parties in Iraq will need to turn to something other than rhetoric in order to build a constituency for taking power. Historically in the Middle East, inchoate organisations and parties like Hamas and Hizbollah generated support by providing essential services that the government could not provide. Iraqi groups like al Dawa and the Sadr party can be expected to do the same. With the pressure of upcoming elections (or impending civil or sectarian war), competition to provide aid in order to consolidate political support seems likely. That this has not happened yet does not mean that it will not do so in the future. Emerging groups are addressing gaps in the essential services that the ‘government’ (the Coalition Provisional Authority) is providing. It is only that these gaps are not ‘humanitarian’, but security-related.

The proliferation of armed ‘brigades’ and ‘corps’ linked to sects and political parties highlights that security is the greatest need and greatest deficit in essential services. The ‘Mahdi Army’ and other groups that patrol the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala mark the beginning of what may become a problematic trend. The regional historical pattern dictates that an embryonic organisation develops an ideology and then complements this with aid, slowly building a following before becoming militarised. In Iraq, the opposite has taken place: the impulse to address the most pressing need, security, has created political/religious parties that already possess military power without having proved themselves in any other way, nor necessarily commanding popular support. Addressing inadequacies in electricity and fuel availability or high unemployment – all of which are present needs – is not easy. Patrolling the streets with armed militias is another matter, and perhaps a shortcut to legitimacy.

Sectarianism and intra-sect tension and competition are likely to increase as elections draw near, with implications for the perceived neutrality of international NGOs. Comparisons with Lebanon in the 1980s, where extreme divisions shaped the political and humanitarian landscape, cannot be ignored. While international NGOs are aware of the Sunni–Shi’a–Kurdish split, little attention is paid to how this is evolving, or how these groups may use international NGOs for their own ends.

Although the co-option of international aid by various groups is not unique to Iraq, it is significant nonetheless because it may erode the impartiality of humanitarian agencies in the eyes of other competing groups or parties. Thus, even though international NGOs may provide their aid on an impartial basis, the perception may be that, due to an NGO’s geographic location, it may be perceived by default as being aligned with this particular party or group. Thus, an international NGO working in Sadr city may face co-option by the Sadr, who will take the credit for bringing in the NGO’s services. This is nothing new. But the fact that the NGO may then be seen as being non-neutral and non-impartial, because of the location of its projects within a sectarian enclave, is potentially a much greater risk, since this poses obvious security problems when NGOs depend for protection on recognition of their status. In effect, the agency becomes perceived as pro-Sadr, with obvious consequences if the Sadr come into conflict with other Shi’a, Sunni or Kurdish groups.

It is as yet unclear to what degree the neutrality of international NGOs will be questioned based on where projects are located. It may come to the point, as it did in Lebanon, where an NGO is scrutinised for the number of projects it has in each sectarian area, but as yet people are not monitoring this very closely. More research into opinion on the ground is needed to see to what degree this is the case, because if this perception holds true it can have serious security-related consequences. After the first Gulf war, some international NGOs were criticised as being pro-Kurdish, since the majority of programmes were in the Kurdish north of Iraq. When Iraq was under the control of Saddam Hussein’s regime, this criticism never developed into a security threat. In the current lawless environment, this may no longer hold.

The threat from within: the hidden face of international humanitarianism?

The identity of humanitarian assistance in Iraq is also under threat from within. The lack of independence has received a great deal of attention from European agencies, which criticise the relationship between their US counterparts and the occupying forces. However, Islamic, especially Gulf-based, NGOs operating in Iraq pose a much greater, and as yet unrealised, threat to humanitarian principles. Whereas US NGOs may be criticised for a lack of independence (and perhaps eventually neutrality and impartiality should the conflict devolve into a large-scale US–Iraqi conflict), some Islamic NGOs reject impartiality in a much more blatant way, in particular in making a distinction between Sunni and Shi’a in Iraq. While many Islamic NGOs claim to be privately funded, the freedom that this usually implies is a myth. In the case of Gulf states, and the international Islamic NGOs deriving funding from them, there is a tendency towards the Salafi interpretation of Islam. This is important as regards Iraq in that, in this interpretation, Shi’a are considered as virtual infidels. Thus, when funding is given to meet the appeals of the international Islamic NGOs in Iraq, private donors are thinking of their Sunni Iraqi ‘brothers’, not the whole of Iraq, especially the Shi’a. Impartiality is therefore compromised, through the earmarking of funds, on which programme decisions are based. In interviews conducted with some of these NGOs, executives lament the earmarking of donor money, and are distressed at being compelled to serve Sunnis and not all Iraqis. The concrete results of this earmarking of funds are reflected in the geographic distribution of international Islamic NGO programmes, which overwhelmingly focus on the Sunni Triangle. Therefore, some Islamic NGOs, though independent of political influence, are constrained by donor bias. In the same way, US NGOs are tied to the US government indirectly through the funding.

Another possibility is that Islamic NGOs may be guided by local, especially Gulf, governments. In this case, ties to some of these NGOs may also shape their programme choices according to political machinations. It is likely that the Sunni Gulf states fear an expansion of hostile Shi’a influence along their borders, and wish to stem it. Thus government-driven aid via government-dominated Islamic NGOs may be used to ‘buy’ the goodwill of the Shi’a south, perhaps in the hope of creating a friendly neighbour out of a one-time foe.

States may also try to influence politic developments through spreading a state-particular interpretation of Islam. Da’wa (the spreading and revitalisation of Islam) is a primary tool thereof, a religious principle that is often manipulated for political ends. By creating co-religionists, through drawing people to a particular interpretation of Islam, adherents may be drawn into the sphere of influence of the state whose ideology they share. A prime example is the spread of Wahabism, an ideology particular to Saudi Arabia. Within development or relief programmes, those that focus on education are the most likely vehicle for efforts at ideology dissemination and assimilation.

It is unclear to what degree and in what form neighbouring governments are involved in Iraq, but the country is strategically important, and logic dictates that they are seeking a way to influence developments in their national interest.


The potential manipulation of aid by local groups in Iraq has many historical parallels: the opportunistic explosion of civil society in Somalia, the Lebanese example of extreme sectarian division down to the provision of aid, and the universal appropriation of aid by regional factions, to name but a few. What is distressing in Iraq is the lack of awareness of these pitfalls, and the active cooperation from parts of the humanitarian community in actions which erode humanitarian principles. If the international NGO community hopes to maintain some semblance of neutrality in the eyes of the local population, it must seriously examine itself, and more strictly define what it means by neutral, impartial and independent aid. Without knowing how all humanitarian actors are funded, politically aligned and ideologically driven, the humanitarian community risks passively linking itself to organisations and objectives that many of its members would strenuously reject, and actively seek to distance themselves from. This is an environment where even an NGO with the privilege of independent funding may easily find itself entangled in partisan aid, if not by its own actions then by its association with the actions of other NGOs, or through affiliation with local religious/political groups.

It is essential for the security of all international actors in Iraq that the principles of humanitarian assistance are upheld. Unfortunately, the argument that the ends justify the means, or that the Coalition’s objectives amount to humanitarian ideals, prevails with the majority of the aid community in Iraq, who view the exigencies of funding as their primary concern. In the process of securing funding, agencies are happy to join the Coalition as ‘force multipliers’ or field agents of the ‘hearts and minds campaign’. In such an environment, the principles of aid are set aside as anachronistic keepsakes of another era.

Theo Murphy worked for an international NGO in Basrah in 2003. He has also worked in Sudan, Jordan and Afghanistan. He is currently working in Darfur. His email address is

References and further reading

Jonathan Benthall and Jerome Bellion-Jourdan, The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World (London: I. B. Tauris, 2003).

Jonathan Benthall, ‘Humanitarianism and Islam after 11 September’, in Joanna Macrae and Adele Harmer (eds), Humanitarian Action and the ‘Global War on Terror’: A Review of Trends and Issues, HPG Report 14 (London: ODI, 2003).

Gilles Keppel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

Kenneth M. Pollack, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (New York: Random House, 2002).

Jérôme Bellion-Jourdan, ‘Islamic Relief Organizations: Between “Islamism” and “Humanitarianism”’, IS1M Newsletter, no. 5, July 2000,