What can Islam teach secular NGOs about conflict resolution? (and human development, climate change, gender rights…..)

July 22, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Lucy Moore, a policy adviser at Islamic Relief Worldwide came to talk to Oxfam staff last week. We used the ‘in conversation’ format, along the lines of my recent chat withconflict-toolkit2-790x320 Jamie Love, which seems to work better than the standard powerpoint + Q&A.

Islamic Relief has some really interesting publications on Islamic approaches to human development, gender and development, and in Lucy’s case, ‘conflict transformation’ (which I think means making it better, rather than worse…). She came to Oxfam to present Working in Conflict: A Faith Based Toolkit for Islamic Relief, and its shorter ‘Introduction for external agencies’ (7 pages + 3 page glossary of Islamic terms – v handy).

Lucy’s work points up some of the benefits of working within a faith perspective (most of these apply to other religions just as much as Islam):

Legitimacy: research by the World Bank and others consistently underlines the importance of their faith in poor people’s lives, and that they trust their religious institutions far more than they trust governments, NGOs or anyone else. But if your approach is secular, legalistic, evidence-based and rationalist (all good things, right?), don’t expect it to resonate – it will sound alien to the lives of an awful lot of the people you are trying to help. Take this quote from IR’s work in Yemen:

‘While the trainer was making reference to the UN and international human rights, a participant responded by saying that Islam addressed human rights 1400 years ago… Another participant stood up and said they (the trainees) would not believe or trust any book or material not related to Islamic concepts.’

Islamic Relief Blue.jpeg

Collective v Individual: Faith-based approaches often emphasize the importance of the collectivity – community, family etc, over the individual. There are problems with this approach (I’ll come to those), but with regards to some areas like resolving conflicts or climate change (stewardship – the duty this generation owes to future generations), I suspect collective approaches are more likely to work. Discuss.

The importance of ritual: ‘Rituals play an important part in conflict resolution’ – secular agencies often underestimate the importance of ritual in the people’s lives. Not so, faith groups.

Restorative rather than retributive justice: Lucy’s paper states that Islamic theology is very clear that ‘reconciliation and restorative justice is preferable’ to retribution and that wrongdoing creates obligations to ‘make things right’. Shame not everyone is listening – this seems a world away from some of the punishments meted out in the name of Islam.

On obligation to take action on injustice (and not just speak or think about it): According to a well-known Hadith (saying or tradition of the Prophet): “Whosoever of you sees an injustice, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.” And I don’t think ‘with his hand’ includes clicktivism……

Lucy’s advice to secular NGOs wishing to work with faith groups was a) don’t start pretending you’re a theologian; engage with faith leaders instead and b) treat them as ‘architects’ not just ‘gatekeepers’ (when I asked staff in DRC if we worked with faith groups they said ‘sure, we get the priests to distribute our leaflets’. Oops)

So much for the positives, but there were (unsurprisingly) some pretty big concerns.

Firstly, IR seems to understand social capital better than power. The emphasis on community and family is fine when power is equally distributed, but what if the community victimizes some of its members, or husbands abuse wives, or parents beat up their children? The introduction for external agencies was particularly feeble on gender: ‘while social norms do typically exclude [women and youth] from decision-making processes, it is important to be aware that they are likely to be marginalised from the decision making process, while simultaneously utilising alternative avenues of influence and communication.’ Sorry, but I don’t buy this, if it’s saying that backchannels (conversations over the dinner table?) are a substitute for explicit power over decisions.

Secondly, while IR emphasizes the importance of ‘faith literacy’ and paints a remarkably positive picture of Islam, the dissonance with what I see on the news is vast. Even allowing for the bias of Western media, I see few signs of a search for harmony and restorative justice in the Muslim world right now, which seems to be home to a disproportionate number of the world’s conflicts.

But (to end on a positive), another striking aspect of Islam is its willingness to evolve according to changing contexts, and to incorporate local customary law (provided it volsdoesn’t contradict fundamental principles). That at least bodes well for IR’s effort to blend the legitimacy and social roots provided by faith, with the search for empowerment and human development. And respect to Lucy for a) braving a bunch of rights-based headbangers, and b) giving a lunchtime talk in the middle of Ramadan (though I did ask people not to bring sandwiches…..)

I also have a feeling she might want the last word on this topic – over to her (and everyone else)