Humanitarianism, Islam and the West: contest or cooperation?
by Abdel-Rahman Ghandour, political advisor to the UN Special Representitive for the Great Lakes region December 2003

Islamic charities have developed steadily since the early 1980s, starting with modest aid and relief activities in cities such as Cairo, Tehran, Algiers, Beirut and Gaza. In the early 1990s, the more ambitious and successful started to develop significant international relief programmes.

The Saudi-based International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO), for instance, has projects in nearly 100 countries. As they move further afield, Islamic NGOs have found themselves working alongside the major Western players in the international aid system: Christian NGOs, the Red Cross Movement, international secular NGOs and UN agencies.

This article explores some of the tensions that have emerged, particularly between Islamic agencies and their Christian counterparts.

Proselytisation and the Christian mission

Since the end of the 1990s, there has been a substantial revival in the power and influence of Christian NGOs, especially in Central Africa, South-east Asia and Latin America. In response to Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998, for example, the greatest resources were deployed by the Christian humanitarian NGO the Love of Christ Brigade.

Thousands of Christian NGOs and consortia operate across the globe; one of the largest Christian networks, Caritas, comprises 154 Catholic agencies. Caritas is based in the Vatican, receives funding from the Catholic Church and applies Vatican policies in its work.

Christian NGOs are frequently politicised, and often have evangelical aims.

The Lutheran World Federation ‘seeks to strengthen the links between the faithful and the community and to spread the message of Christ’ by supporting education, development and medical aid programmes, often accompanied by religious instruction.

During the 1980s, World Vision distributed millions of bibles to refugees in Khmer camps (usually Buddhist strongholds) in Cambodia; bible-reading is compulsory in the schools that the organisation funds and manages, and its staff have even reportedly promised American visas to converts.

Almost three-quarters of the 500 NGOs operating on the Cambodia/Thailand border have sought converts. In hospitals in Nigeria, US fundamentalist Protestants have practised the forced baptism of Muslim children and the saying of Christian prayers at Muslim patients’ bedsides.

The newsletters of these missionaries explain that their hospitals are designed to be a bulwark against Islam and a place of evangelisation. Sections of the Muslim population (Muslims are in the majority in northern Nigeria) reacted strongly against these activities, refusing to work or receive treatment in these hospitals.

A ‘Christian plot against Islam’?

The aims of Christian evangelisation are, of course, in open conflict with one of the main vocations of Islamic NGOs: spreading Islam in countries or areas deemed amenable (such as southern Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda, the Philippines, Thailand and the US); and reviving Islam in areas considered its natural home, such as the Balkans, the Caucasus, Palestine, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Some Islamic NGOs have acquired legitimacy and support by using concerns around Christian evangelisation to build a new conspiracy theory against Islam, presenting themselves as a bulwark against the perceived expansionism of both confessional and secular Western NGOs.

In 1997, for example, Dr. Ahmed Sonoussi, the head of the Afghan office of the Lajnat al-Dawa relief organisation, wrote a widely disseminated memo criticising what he called ‘the malicious activity of the crusaders’ who, through relief work in Afghanistan, were seeking to ‘poison the minds of Afghans and gradually convert them to Christianity’.

Sonoussi later admitted that his memo was a deliberate exaggeration designed to mobilise public opinion in the Muslim world and obtain more funds for his cash-strapped organisation. Nonetheless, the Taliban hardened its attitude towards Western humanitarian actors, and encouraged the return of Islamic NGOs.

The premises of Christian NGOs International Assistance Mission and SERVE were closed in August 2001 and their expatriate personnel expelled, and eight expatriates and 16 local staff of the German Christian NGO Shelter Now International were arrested for proselytising.

Taliban raids on the NGO’s premises found staff showing a film on Christianity to an Afghan family, as well as Bibles and other religious books, and audio and video material in local languages.

Islamic challenges

Challenges to the proselytising of Christian NGOs have grown in line with the increasing power of Islamic NGOs.  During the 1980s, the presence of secular NGOs in Muslim countries was tolerated because these agencies provided massive amounts of aid and expertise that Islamic organisations were not in a position to supply.  But from the end of the 1980s, Islamic NGOs have been less prepared to acquiesce in the presence of Western NGOs in territories occupied by Muslims.  Intimidation of Western personnel, threats against their personnel (and their families), pressure on the local authorities, the mobilisation of the local population and local and national religious and political leaders and appeals to the national media, are all employed to force these agencies to withdraw.

Working with Muslim communities has become increasingly problematic for Christian NGOs – especially Protestant ones, for historical, political and philosophical reasons the most active in evangelisation.  As a consequence, these organisations have shifted their main theatre of operations, either to regions where there is a Christian predominance or bias, such as Central America, the Great Lakes area of Africa, Southern Africa and the Far East, or where there is still a high proportion of adherents to religions other than either Christianity or Islam, such as animists in western Sudan, central Nigeria and Chad. Areas bordering on the Islamic world (Liberia, Sierra Leone, southern Sudan, Uganda, Nigeria and Central Asia) are considered to have strategic importance in stemming the advance of Islam.

Islamic NGOs have also attempted to control the aid delivered by Western international NGOs. The Egyptian government, encouraged by Islamic NGOs, has obliged Western agencies to work in partnership with local NGOs.  Drawing on their powerful networks and strong support base, Islamic NGOs are increasingly arranging partnerships, which can reduce the role of international NGOs to that of mere funders of indigenous Islamic organisations. These partnerships may be concluded with four aims in mind: preventing secular Western NGOs from working in the field; enabling indigenous Islamic NGOs to obtain international recognition and legitimacy; asserting identity (‘it is Islamic NGOs who are working with our communities and are the most concerned about their fate, not Western NGOs’); and acquiring knowledge, resources, experience and expertise.

Islamic NGOs may at times be able to enter countries where access is difficult for their Christian counterparts; in some instances, they are the only organisations able to bring aid. Some NGOs promote this as what the marketing industry calls a ‘unique selling point’.  In February 2001, the president of the NGO Islamic Relief, Dr. Hani al-Banna, declared that ‘Once again, British Muslims have carried the torch in the response to a humanitarian disaster. This time, it’s Chechnya’. Western NGOs, he claimed, refused to go to the region for fear that their expatriate personnel would be kidnapped or murdered.  Despite the overwhelming presence of American troops in post-Saddam Iraq, Islamic NGOs, especially those based in the Middle East, have a larger presence than ever before, and have been gathering support for their Iraq programmes on the basis of their privileged access to Muslim land.

From conflict to cooperation?

Not all Islamic humanitarian actors agree with this position of opportunistic hostility towards Western NGOs. Some advocate reconciliation and others, more concerned with the immediate impact on communities requiring relief, simply believe that efficiency in the field requires partnership.  Many Muslim donors are unconcerned by these rivalries.  A group of pious Yemenis from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made a donation of €50,000 to MSF rather than an Islamic NGO during catastrophic floods in Yemen in 1996 because they did not trust local Islamic NGOs to deliver the aid in an independent and efficient way.

Some Islamic NGOs, with the backing of some religious leaders, see it as entirely appropriate to develop further links with their Christian counterparts as a way of gaining greater acceptance within the international aid system. Sheikh Ali Hashemi, religious adviser to the UAE head of state, declared in 1997 that it was the duty of Muslims to give their zakat (a levy used for charitable or religious purposes) to humanitarian NGOs, including Christian agencies.  Islamic Relief and Christian Aid worked together in Croatia, as have NGOs linked to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Caritas International in Jerusalem.  In Bosnia, cooperation between the Bosnian Islamic NGO Merhamet and the NGOs Caritas (Catholic), Dobrotvor (Orthodox) and La Benevolencija (Jewish) – despite its limited scope – won all four agencies the John XXIII international peace prize, awarded by Pope John Paul II during a visit to Sarajevo in April 1997.

However, these are exceptions. Whether deliberately or not, Western NGOs exclude Islamic agencies from debates and meetings in the field.  There is no international forum where Islamic NGOs might expect to meet the major private Western humanitarian agencies. When important issues are on the agenda or when emergencies require rapid decisions, Western NGOs tend first of all to seek consensus amongst themselves.  At times of great crisis, the four major secular NGOs, CARE, Save the Children, Oxfam and MSF, tend to take major decisions and decide policy amongst themselves, rather than within international coordination bodies, which are deemed too bureaucratic.  Those few coordination bodies that do exist, such as the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) in Geneva, have practically no representation from Islamic NGOs: in 2003, only three of ICVA’s 80-plus membership were recognised Islamic NGOs (IIRO, ISRA/IARA and Human Appeal International).

A dialogue of the deaf?

Amongst both Islamic NGOs and Western secular NGOs, simplistic and stereotypical images persist.  Islamic NGOs are often seen as proselytising organisations, the allies of Islamist states, run by zealous volunteers and humanitarian in name only. Western NGOs are seen as vulgar throwbacks to the Christian missions of the past.

The very concept of a secular NGO exceeds the understanding of some Islamic humanitarian actors, who find it hard to distinguish between secularism and atheism.  They do not understand (or do not accept) that a humanitarian gesture, whatever its origin, could be made outside the scope of religious values, considering that religion is the guarantor of morals, charity, good behaviour and virtue. Islamists cannot conceive of self-respecting Western humanitarian NGOs as anything other than religiously inspired.  Consequently, in the field, non-faith-based NGOs are penalised precisely because they are secular, i.e., from their point of view, by reason of their neutrality.  Yet if faith-based NGOs are considered by Islamic NGOs as clearly identified historic enemies, and if secular NGOs are rejected out of hand, how can a dialogue take place?

Where there is genuine contact, the effects are positive. In the Horn of Africa, for example, regular meetings in Nairobi between Western and Islamic NGOs operating in Somalia have enabled each to become familiar with the other.  IIRO took part in these meetings, and the information it provided was valuable because it was working in a part of Somalia to which Western NGOs had no access.  The Kenyan authorities suspended IIRO’s licence following the attack on the American Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. When its activities resumed six months later, the IIRO representative’s return to meetings was welcomed with applause.

The impact of 9/11

Developments since 9/11 have had profoundly negative consequences. Islamic NGOs have been accused by Western governments of being hot-beds of terrorism amid a climate of deep suspicion towards organised, non-governmental Islam.  While a handful of Islamic NGOs did stray into militant political extremism, where violence was accepted as another way of ‘defending’ Islam, the majority remain genuinely focused on purely humanitarian objectives.  Nonetheless, Islamic NGOs of whatever stripe are struggling to raise funds among their regular (mainly Muslim) donors, who have become nervous about being seen as linked to any kind of organised Islam. Reductions in traditional sources of funding may force mainstream Islamic NGOs to look elsewhere, including to more dubious international Islamic networks.  Meanwhile, Muslim populations in remote areas of the world, to whom only Islamic NGOs had access, have been severely deprived of humanitarian aid.

The ostracising of Islamic NGOs has meant a loss of contact with their Western counterparts, widening the gap between them.  Expressions of solidarity such as seen in Nairobi demonstrate that confidence grows in line with the increase in direct and continuous contact on the ground. In the wake of 11 September, this slow but steady rapprochement has suffered a severe setback.

Abdel-Rahman Ghandouris a political advisor to the Special Representative of the UN for the Great Lakes region.  He has worked for the Lebanese and International Red Cross and was for seven years MSF’s head of mission in the Middle East. This article is adapted from Abdel-Rahman Ghandour, Jihad humanitaire: Enquête sur les ONG islamiques (Paris: Flammarion, 2002).

References and further reading

Zuhair Abdul-Kareem Khader, Islamic Relief Organisations: Challenges and Opportunities: Case Study of Sudan, dissertation for the MA in Post-war Recovery Studies, University of York, 1999.

Sarah Ben Nefissa and Sari Nanafi (eds), Pouvoirs et associations dans le monde arabe (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2002).

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

Sara Roy, ‘Critiquing NGOs: Assessing the Last Decade, The Transformation of Islamic NGOs in Palestine’, Middle East Report, no. 214, Spring 2000.

Jonathan Benthall, ‘The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Islamic Societies with Special Reference to Jordan’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, November 1997.

M. A. Mohamed Salih, Islamic NGOs in Africa: The Promise and Peril of Islamic Voluntarism (Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, Centre of African Studies, Occasional Paper, March 2002).