Islam and Development Cooperation
Environmental Protection through the Koran?

Governmental and non-governmental development aid organizations must define the values and goals they share with Muslim partners. But how important is it to refer to Islam in development projects in order to guarantee success? By Martina Sabra

A boy in a madrasa, a religious school, in Afghanistan (photo: AP)
Better knowledge of Islam certainly doesn't hurt, but for development projects to succeed, "Islam sensitivity" is of limited help

​​In a rural school 150 kilometers south of Casablanca, today's topic is environmental protection. We must take care of the trees and plants, explains the teacher, not just because they provide shade but because they must be respected as part of God's creation. To make this point, the teacher quotes a passage from the Prophet Mohammed. The children listen attentively.

Islam as a foundation for environmental protection and the preservation of natural resources? This approach is not new in development work. Many development organizations have been incorporating Islamic values and authority figures into their everyday work for decades, and they have been successful at it.

"Of course we first turn to the sura and to the congregation of village elders," says Wiltrud Gutsmied, a representative from the Maltese aid organization responsible for 18 mostly rural development projects in Afghanistan.

A changed political landscape

Ayman Mazek, founding member of the Christian-Muslim aid organization "Green Helmets" sees cooperation with Islamic structures as something run-of-the-mill.

"Of course you've got to have close contact with the local Islamic authority figures. They are well respected," says Mazyek. "And it would also be helpful if some of the aid workers had more detailed knowledge of local Islamic practices. But all in all, it's a person's technical qualifications and social skills that are more important than religious conviction or in-depth knowledge of the religion."

"Islam sensitive" development work is not a new invention. The fact that the issue is being debated more intensively now is due to the changed political landscape.

"After September 11, 2001, there was much more debate about Islam," says Ruth Bigalke, an expert on Islam and West Africa. "And of course it became apparent that while much work had been done in Latin America with the churches, for example, there had always been reservations about working with Islamic organizations."

Religious similarities

"However, having these kinds of reservations is simply not appropriate in West Africa," says the young scholar who now works for Germany's international cooperation for sustainable development, GTZ. "Taking care of God's creation, social justice, compassion with the weak – all this is not just important in Christianity, but also in Islam."

In Mali Ruth Bigalke saw Muslim clerics protest in public against the exclusion of people with HIV – in the name of Islamic compassion. In Mauritania, she reports, Islamic leaders are currently working on drafting a law banning the genital mutilation of girls.

In addition to the shock waves elicited by September 11, other factors have also led development organizations to concentrate on Islam in development cooperation. For church organizations, an important issue has been the accusation in Islamic countries that their work is missionary. This calls on church groups to take a stand.

A further factor is that Islamic non-governmental organizations, individuals and entrepreneurs are increasingly serving as actors in development cooperation. Islamic banks, Islamic aid organizations and wealthy Muslim patrons are competing in some countries with Western donors.

Islamization and developmental work

The Islamic organizations are often better able than Western groups to gain the trust of the local population. But blindly supporting such religious organizations with the argument that they are more "authentic" or credible runs the risk of strengthening discourses based on a totalitarian Islamic identity and promoting anti-democratic currents.

A further factor is the gaining strength of Islamic political movements and groups in many Islamic countries.

The most recent prominent example is Palestine. After the Islamic Hamas won the elections in 2005, Western development aid was pulled from the country.

But on the other hand, in Palestine it is impossible to avoid working with Islamic actors because they are among the decision-makers in Parliament and in the municipal councils responsible for constructing everything from water pipes to hospitals. "The Islamists are a current that represents the mainstream," says Bigalke. "To say that we will only cooperate with secular elites is to defeat the purpose and leave no chance of having a wider effect."

In other words, to return to the issue we began with: Koran passages are certainly useful in increasing Arabic or Muslim school children's awareness about the environment.

But when it comes to preserving natural habitats or cracking down on those who abuse the environment, in Islamic countries such as Morocco the only thing that helps is tough laws and police enforcement of those laws.

Better knowledge of Islam certainly doesn't hurt, but for development projects to succeed, this kind of "Islam sensitivity" is of limited help.

Martina Sabra

© 2007

Translated from the German by Christina M. White

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