Is cultural proximity the answer to gaining access in Muslim contexts?
by Nouria Brikci, independent March 2005

In the context of the US ‘global war on terror’ (GWOT), the issue of cultural proximity has become an increasingly pressing question for humanitarians. In countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, Western NGOs employing large numbers of expatriate staff have been assessing whether their Western ‘face’ acts as a barrier to humanitarian intervention. The solutions considered have been either to send Muslim expatriates to Muslim contexts, or to form more partnerships with Muslim NGOs (sometimes local, sometimes international). Agencies have certainly been encouraged in both approaches by Muslim NGOs in the UK, which argue that Muslims are best at conveying certain values, and that they are generally more acceptable to Muslim populations than Western aid workers.

While many factors will dictate whether Western NGOs should rely on culturally proximate workers, this article concentrates on the religious validity of the cultural proximity argument. There is a sense that, through the pursuit of the GWOT, Islam is being framed as an insurmountable obstacle to Western NGOs’ ability to work in some Muslim contexts. The question considered in this article is whether there is enough common ground between Western humanitarian principles and Islam to enable any humanitarian worker, wherever they are from, to work in Muslim environments.

Humanitarianism and Islam

Islam places paramount importance on charity and alms-giving. Of particular importance is zakat, the religious duty to give up a fixed proportion of one’s wealth (about 2.5% of savings annually) for specified causes. Another form of giving is called sadaqa. These are non-obligatory alms given over and above zakat. As the third pillar of Islam, zakat is crucial to all Muslims. There are eight permitted classes of beneficiaries, including the poor, prisoners of war and ‘sons of the road’ (travellers, displaced people and refugees). The desire to help the most vulnerable is thus at the core of both Western and Islamic charitable traditions. At first sight, then, a Western humanitarian worker should not find any difficulty in operating in a Muslim setting.


Most Western NGOs claim to rely, in their operations, on the values of impartiality, independence and neutrality. By contrast, there is a clear perception that the religious basis of Muslim NGOs does not allow similar space for such values. Could this perceived difference be the basis for a justification for relying on Muslims in Muslim contexts? If indeed humanitarianism in Muslim minds precludes such values, then Muslims would find the Western framework difficult to accept. But is this true?

The impartiality debate centres on whether charitable funds should be available only to Muslims, or whether they can be allocated indiscriminately to all. In other words, can Muslim aid be impartial? Some argue that funds should be given based solely on need: poor people should be helped whatever their religion. Others contend that, while zakat can only be disbursed to Muslims, sadaqa can be given to anyone in need.

In principle, Islam allows for impartial giving, and all Muslim NGOs in the UK claim impartiality. While in practice it might be difficult for Muslim NGOs to convince their donors to abide by an impartial interpretation of zakat, this is an operational difficulty, rather than a fundamental religious impossibility. If there is no intrinsic reason why Muslims should be unable to support impartiality, then there should be no religious reason not to accept non-Muslim NGOs or NGO workers in a Muslim context.

Is Muslim charitable aid independent? Can Muslims and Muslim NGOs give zakat or sadaqa independently from political affiliations? Answering this question entails looking into the division between the political, the religious and the civil in Islam. It is commonly believed that, because the Prophet Mohammed was not only a spiritual leader but also the supreme ruler of Medina, there is no distinction between these different spheres. Indeed, some Muslim states, such as Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Iran, partly base their legitimacy on their role as protectors of the faith. However, processes of modernisation throughout the Muslim world have brought a higher degree of separation between state and religion in countries like Algeria, Turkey and Tunisia, as well as increased secularisation. This suggests that, while the origins of Islam as a religion were intertwined with politics and state formation, this has not always remained the case. Muslim charitable giving will not therefore necessarily be linked to the state or to the clerical establishment.

This would imply that, in principle, non-Muslim humanitarian workers should be able to present their organisation as independent from state imperatives, provided of course that this independence is genuine. In some parts of the Muslim world, the Gulf for instance, most NGOs are far from independent from their government. But this does not imply that independence is impossible.

Finally, can Muslim charitable giving be neutral? The Islamic concept of a united ummah or community of believers precludes any neutral stance: in the event of conflict between a Muslim and a non-Muslim population, Muslim should stand alongside Muslim. The reality, of course, is much more complex.

The war on terror has deepened the perception that Muslims are being attacked by the West. Humanitarian workers associated with Western NGOs therefore are seen as part of this struggle, and lose their neutrality as a consequence. This is a very serious problem, but it is a political problem, not a religious one. Nor has the concept of the ummah won universal acceptance within the Muslim world as no one group can lay claim to theological hegemony. There is therefore no basis upon which to claim that solidarity between Muslims would necessarily come before solidarity with humanity as a whole. There seem to be no grounds to argue that Muslims should not recognise or accept others as neutral actors.

The legal basis of Western humanitarianism

Western humanitarianism relies on a framework of international law, particularly international humanitarian law, refugee law and human rights law, in order to operate. Is this legal framework compatible with Islamic law?

International law and Islamic law share a common history, and have influenced each other since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. US academic Sohail Hashmi notes that ‘some Muslim writers even argue that the antecedents for the western just war tradition’s concerns with proportionality and discrimination in war, which in turn contributed to the rise of humanitarian law, lie in Islamic conceptions of Jihad’.

Within the legal tradition of Islam, many parallels can be drawn with international humanitarian law. The status of non-combatant, for example, is fully recognised, and combatants have to obey a set of mandatory rules in war, including injunctions prohibiting the destruction of civilian objects and the appropriation of civilian property. Life is sacred within Islam, and the enormity of taking innocent life is expressed in many verses of the Koran. Refugees, or ‘sons of the road’, are given a preferential status within the Islamic tradition. This stems from the Prophet’s flight from Mecca to Medina and the protection offered to him there. Islamic law affirms the practice of providing refuge to persecuted people and that asylum should be provided without discriminating between free persons and those who are enslaved, rich and poor, men and women, or Muslims and non-Muslims. The medieval theologian Ibn al Arab suggests that states are obliged to offer asylum ‘where there is injustice, intolerance, physical persecution, disease and financial insecurity’. There is, in other words, clear compatibility between the legal framework upon which Western humanitarianism is based, and Muslim legal tradition.

Why has this common ground not kept aid workers safe?

Islam and the principles and laws underpinning Western humanitarianism share numerous common features. There should therefore be enough common ground between the two traditions to enable any humanitarian worker, whatever their origin, to operate in a Muslim context.

However, the view of Islam presented here is not necessarily shared by all Muslims, and particularly by those extremist groups for whom the ummah is a reality, and for whom concepts of neutrality or independence ring hollow. For such groups, these ideas are in profound opposition to their understanding of their religion. This stems from the fact that, within Islam itself, there are many different schools and interpretations. To believe that Muslims constitute one homogenous family, and hence to believe that sending Muslims to Muslim contexts or relying solely on Muslim NGOs (whether local or international) will ensure the safety of aid workers, is profoundly simplistic. In Afghanistan, for example, over 30 aid workers have been killed since March 2003. The majority were Afghans. In Iraq, many of the aid workers kidnapped are Iraqis. Political gain, not religion, is the driving factor. Being alike, by supposedly sharing similar values, does not necessarily keep one safe.

‘Cultural proximity’ is not the answer to the problems of access and insecurity that Western NGOs currently face in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. What is needed instead is investment in training to infuse in humanitarian workers an interest in learning about frameworks other than their own. This would go some way towards ensuring that anyone could work anywhere. It would not, however, overcome the other barriers that might render the work of Western humanitarians difficult in some Muslim countries, such as a colonial past or current politics.

The inability of NGOs to negotiate access with armed non-state actors is not new; Maoist guerrillas have refused access to humanitarian workers in Nepal for many years. Today, however, the focus seems to be on those armed non-state actors who are fighting a supposedly Muslim fight. Muslim aid workers are not necessarily able to negotiate with these fighters any better than their non-Muslim counterparts.


Nouria Brikciis a research officer at MSF (UK), concentrating particularly on Muslim perspectives of humanitarianism. The views expressed here are her own.

References and further reading

J. Benthall and J. Bellion-Jourdan, The Charitable Crescent: The Politics of Aid in the Muslim World (New York: IB Tauris, 2003).

James Cockayne, ‘Islam and International Humanitarian Law: From a Clash to a Conversation between Civilizations’, International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 84, no. 847, September 2002, pp. 597–625.

Abdel-Rahman Ghandour, Le Jihad Humanitaire (Paris: Flammarion, 2002).

Sohail Hashmi, ‘Saving and Taking Life in War: Three Modern Muslim Views’, in Jonathan E. Brockopp (ed.), Islamic Ethics Of Life – Abortion, War and Euthanasia (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2003).

G. Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).