Interview with Erhard Brunn

Christianity and Islam as Factors in Development Cooperation

To optimize the success of development aid projects, German development aid initiatives have developed concepts that take Islam into account as a cultural factor. Claudia Mende asks expert Erhard Brunn about the details

photo: DED
Erhard Brunn, right, and four participants of the German-Nigerois "Fight poverty" project

​​Mr. Brunn, should religion play a role in development cooperation?

Brunn: Yes, absolutely. I was deployed twice for the German Development Service (DED), in Uganda and in Nigeria. My impression, however, is that religion does not play a big role in preparing for deployment. Many of my colleagues had a very nonreligious approach.

Why does that disturb you? The DED is financed by the state, and we live in a secular society.

Brunn: Of course, but it is not exactly helpful if development workers live in a country that is practically 100 percent Islam and consider Islam to be the country's main problem. They don't have to be religious themselves. But anyone who is not religious should still know something about the religious context that determines the thinking and feelings of the people. I think it is important in the process of selecting development workers to see if the applicant fits into an Islamic environment.

Is it mainly about respect?

Brunn: Yes, that is the decisive word. It is about understanding and respect, about empathy as well as basic knowledge. It is not about religious competition. The Bible and the Koran are both books with a highly ethical quality, and we should concede this to each other. This acknowledgement creates an excellent basis for working together. Nowadays development cooperation is increasingly drawing on the potential of Christianity and Islam.

Are there guidelines for dealing with Islamic structures?

Brunn: The GTZ conducted a lot of research in 2001 on topics such as Islamic banking and reproductive health with its program "Islam and Technical Cooperation in Africa" in order to adapt its work to Muslim positions. This is a good start and has in part been implemented in practice.

What exactly does this look like?

Brunn: For example, we have had good experiences in protecting resources. In the desert country of Mauritania livestock farming is an adapted lifestyle that conserves resources. GTZ has tapped on traditional law and Islamic Sharia in order to reform land rights so that they do not prevent mobile livestock farming. Both local and Islamic legal interpretations have basic principles that go well with modern ideas of resource and climate protection measures.

Doesn't Sharia hinder development in a country?

Brunn: Sharia is very different in its local manifestations. Naturally we find much in it restrictive, but it also offers approaches for sustainable development. Islam emphasizes the collective element, while we give priority to the rights of the individual. With land rights we might be able to work much better with collectives, as was the case in Mauritania. Muslim jurisdiction can be flexible, and this flexibility should be supported.

Erhard Brunn (photo: private copyright)
Erhard Brunn was in Uganda and Nigeria for the German Development Service (DED). He is the author of the book on Christianity and Islam, so far published in German.

​​What about AIDS education?

Brunn: In general, we have had no problems with our Islamic partners. In the West people like to assume that Muslim leaders are conservative and that AIDS is generally taboo. But this is not always the case. Religious leaders in West Africa, for example, have joined forces in the fight against AIDS. The "Caravan of Religious Leaders" through seven countries in the region in 2005 on World AIDS Day is a good example of the potential of this cooperation.

As far as AIDS is concerned, the Catholic church is a stronger hindrance than Muslim organizations because it rejects the use of condoms. Muslims greatly value the protection of life. Everyone profits when religious leaders use their influence on morals, marriage and the family to make it clear that AIDS is a real danger.

Can religious leaders contribute to peace work?

Brunn: In northern Uganda, for instance, there is a widely ramified interreligious peace network of Christian churches and Muslims. The Lord Resistance Army is terrorizing the population in this region. Religious leaders cannot stop such terrorists from waging war, but they can make sure that the ethnic groups do not incite one another against the others after acts of violence.

This danger exists quite often, and religious leaders have repeatedly succeeded in warding it off. They could just as easily help integrate children soldiers back into their villages or defuse conflicts between nomads and settlers. Interestingly enough, however, in doing so they resort neither to modern nor Christian or Muslim rites, but instead fall back on traditional African rites.

What approaches are being used in non-state cooperation?

Brunn: For example, there are the Green Helmets of Rupert Neudeck and Aiman Mazyek from the Central Committee of Muslims. The Green Helmets stand in the tradition of the Peace Corps: Young Christians and Muslims work together on reconstruction projects in crisis regions such as Kashmir, Indonesia and Afghanistan. As an interreligious group, the Green Helmets build schools as well as mosques and Christian churches.

Aren't you describing this too positively? Certainly there must be a lot of resistance?

Brunn: German organizations have initiated many projects that are not welcome in the south. For example, in building new schools in northern Nigeria, the Catholic relief organization Misereor has also created prayer rooms for the (numerous) Muslim pupils. Catholic bishops in northern Nigeria, however, have refused to accept this concept.

I find it unfortunate, on the other hand, that the very close cooperation that has existed between Christian and Muslim religious leaders in Nigeria since 2004 has hardly received any international financial support. Their cooperation paved the way, for instance, for the electoral process in 2004 and thus the start of decentralization in Nigeria.

How do you see cooperation with Muslim aid organizations in Germany?

Brunn: It is important to keep in mind that there are Muslim aid organizations in Europe that are growing and intensifying their work in foreign countries. There is more and more interest among groups working in the same region in working together with aid organizations such as Islamic Relief or the organization Muslime Helfen e.V. (Muslims Help). Visible agreements and cooperation would improve their acceptance among the population.

When Muslim organizations join together with Christian organizations to criticize the government of Sudan for what is happening in Dafur, everyone will gain in credibility.

Interview: Claudia Mende

© 2007

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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